In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the stress bucket model.
I first heard of the term stress bucket several months ago in a post by Caz at Mental Health 360º, but it’s been around for a while. It looks like it’s best known in the UK, and it doesn’t seem to have really made inroads in North America.
The bucket represents your capacity for handling stressors. The greater your vulnerability, whether that’s because of mental illness or anything else, the smaller your bucket is. When you’re well, you’ve got a bigger bucket.
Stress pours in
The bucket gets stress added to it during the day, as water is poured into the top. As the bucket starts to fill, you might shift from calm and relaxed to normal everyday mode to mildly stressed all the way up to totally overwhelmed.
You can take steps to reduce the stress coming in, and that will help you later on, but it doesn’t do much about the full bucket you’ve got right now.
I find another useful way of conceptualizing stress in the context of mental illness is fork theory; there are only so many fork pokes (stressors) you can take before you reach your limit and need recovery time before you can take on more of what the world tries to throw at you.
Stress drains out
The bucket has spouts/drains/holes or whatever you’d like to call them towards the bottom. By using coping strategies, you can let some of the stress flow out of the bucket, leaving you with a lighter load. Some coping strategies might be really effective for you, releasing a gush of stress. Others might be so-so, only releasing a little dribble.
Then there are unhealthy, maladaptive coping strategies, like substance use or self-injury. It can feel like you’re letting some stress drain out, but it’s actually getting siphoned right back up into the top of the bucket. You feel a temporary sense of relief, but it actually perpetuates the problem.
The stress bucket concept is also a good fit with the stress-vulnerability, also known as diathesis-stress, model of mental illness. According to that model, mental illness results when a sufficient level of environmental factors collide with pre-existing vulnerability. The lower the vulnerability, the more stress it would take to trigger the onset of illness. Getting back to the stress bucket, if you’ve got a dinky little bucket that’s so rusted that your drains don’t release stress properly, it doesn’t take much to completely overwhelm the system and wash your bucket away entirely in the raging river of mental illness.
Usefulness of the stress bucket model
I was actually looking recently for a good visual representation of the stress-vulnerability model, and I couldn’t find one. The stress bucket makes for a good stand-in, though.
What I think is most important about this model is that it captures that you can use both top-down and bottom-up approaches to stress management. You can work on controlling the stress going in, but you can also work on your coping strategies to release stress from the bottom of the bucket.
As for the bucket itself, that comes back to underlying vulnerabilities. Effectively treating illness, whether mental or physical, can help grow the bucket.
To add on another layer, maybe boosting resilience makes the bucket more flexible and elastic, which can temporarily give you a bit of extra capacity to work with.
How’s your bucket doing these days?
Worksheets are available from:
Winter Dragonflies has a great resource that depicts balancing coping resources and stress.
The UK’s Mental Health Foundation has also put together a booklet on How to Manage and Reduce Stress.
You can find the rest of the what is… series on the Psychology Corner page.
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.