Stress - how big is your bucket?
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
I'm often asked whether stress is a mental health condition, so I thought I'd write a post about it.
The short answer is 'no', but it's definitely closely related to many mental health conditions, either as a causal factor or as a result of the problem.
What is Stress?
We all experience stress, it's a normal part of our everyday lives. Stress in itself isn't a bad thing, in fact it's what drives many people to perform at their best.
However, too much stress, for too long can cause performance to drop off. Worse than that, it can cause problems with both mental and physical health.
Just to complicate matters, people commonly refer to bad stress as... well, stress! Others refer to the body's response to stress as... well, stress! In fact, even The Health and Safety Executive define stress as...
...the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.
Not very helpful at all. In reality good stress is actually called 'eustress' and bad stress we call 'distress'. There's also an element of perception about the ability to meet the demands placed on a person.
The Bucket Analogy
Many people use the bucket analogy to explain how stress works for different people.
The things in our life that we find stressful all collect in our bucket. These stressors will be different for each of us and can change over time. Some stressors will only contribute a small amount of stress, whilst others may contribute the majority. Some stressors are there long-term, whilst others are only brief.
We can also release stress from our bucket in different ways. These things are often described as 'taps' or 'holes' in the bucket.
So our stress levels depend on the balance of stressors flowing in and the release going out.
The stress bucket analogy can also be used to illustrate resilience. Resilience can be thought of as the size of our bucket - the larger the bucket, the better it can cope with a sudden increase in flow without spilling over. In the same way, the more resilient we are, the larger the amount of stressors we can tolerate before our stress levels become a problem. You can read more about resilience in this post.
Stressors can be anything that someone finds stressful. This will be different for different people. They are often broadly caused by things such as work or being in education, relationships with family and friends, health and money problems. 'Simply' being a parent is a significant source of stress for most!
Let's next look at our body's response to a stressful situation. All of our systems swing in to action to deal with the perceived immediate threat that serves us well in a life or death situation.
When we feel threatened, our 'fight or flight' response kicks in to keep us alive
Our adrenal glands immediately produce adrenaline and noradrenaline, which have significant physiological effects on the body.
The heart rate speeds up, increasing blood pressure, the breathing tubes in the lungs relax to allow more air in, and our pupils dilate. We increase the level of sugar in our blood and enhance our brain's use of it. We also move blood away from less important areas, such as skin and the digestive tract, moving it to our vital organs and large muscles - sometimes resulting in us feeling or actually being sick.
Stress also triggers our body to produce more white blood cells, an evolved response to help us deal with the resulting infection or tissue damage from our fight or flight.
Long Term Effects
However, this mechanism has evolved to deal with short-term threats. If our fight or flight mechanism is activated repeatedly, or it persists over a long period of time, it can damage both our physical and mental health. Long term effects can include:
Depression, anxiety and personality disorders
Cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke
Immune system problems resulting in lower resistance to infection and skin problems
Digestive problems such as loss of appetite, stomach ulcers and D&V
Alcohol and substance misuse resulting in a range of further problems
Symptoms of Stress
Whilst the physiological response to stress is fairly typical, different people will react in different ways and exhibit different signs and symptoms.
Generally, the signs and symptoms can be categorised as emotional, physical and behavioural. Examples include:
Difficulty making decisions
Outbursts of anger
Change in sex drive
Exercising less often
Problems with sleep
So what can we do to stop our bucket from overflowing? Well, this will depend on the individual but you can attack both sides of the problem - deal with the stressors, at the same time as opening the taps.
Reduce the Stressors
The first thing to do is recognise that your stress levels are increasing. Look out for symptoms in yourself or perhaps point them out to others.
Once you've recognised the stress, try to figure out what stressors are causing it.
Then see if you can make changes to your life that will remove or reduce each individual stressor. Think about planning ahead or breaking any big problems down in to smaller chunks. Maybe chat to your boss about the workload...
Techniques such as the rule of 5's can also help to find perspective. Ask yourself...
Will this matter in 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months or 5 years? Is it easy to fix or hard?
Some people also find perspective by thinking about or helping others in situations worse than their own.
Open the Taps
When it comes to the taps, you may know what reduces your stress levels. However, there are some basic general principles that we can all apply that will make us healthier and happier in lots of ways:
Sleep. Adopt good sleep hygiene. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, sleeping for about 8 hours each night
Eat. Have a healthy diet and adopt regular eating patterns
Socialise. Make time to relax and socialise with friends and family
Exercise. Take regular exercise that you enjoy, preferably in 'green' or 'blue' spaces
Be Healthy. Avoid unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption or drug misuse
As well as de-stressing us, these are also some of the things that can help us to become more resilient in the long term. Read this post to find out more.
So, in summary. Life is stressful, what's important is that the levels of stress are kept at a healthy level.
Recognising when this level is increasing is the first step to a solution. Actively minimising the stress caused by the stressors in your life and doing things that you find relaxing will help to get you back on track.
If you'd like to discuss this further or are considering Mental Health First Aid training for an individual or a group, please get in touch.