Insights into Psychology

What Is… the Stress Bucket Model

The stress bucket model, with stress coming in the top of the bucket and taps releasing it from the bottom

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

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.

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, and release a gush of stress. Others might be so-so, and only release a little dribble.

Then there are unhealthy coping strategies, like substance use. 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.

Stress-vulnerability model

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.

You can find the rest of the what is… series on the Psychology Corner page.

COVID-19/mental health coping toolkit from Mental Health @ Home

The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages from Mental Health @ Home.

30 thoughts on “What Is… the Stress Bucket Model”

  1. Yeah, this is the basis of my disability. Well, that would be my mental illnesses, but disability in America is found based on an inability to work full-time, and for me, it’s not the mental illnesses per se, but rather my complete inability to handle stress. But don’t get me wrong. I’m fine when I DON’T have to work. I can handle it quite well. But put me in the workplace and I’m just going to go nuts.

    In general, I think I do good with my bucket. If I’m too stressed out, I lay down and rest, and that usually helps. Interesting blog post!!

  2. Very good post, as always. I like this idea. I reflect on being a recruiter and filling niche roles in remote locations (prisons among them)… dealing with managers / puppies tugging at my pant leg all day long with needs. Successfully for several years. I am unable to figure out how my bucket was ever that big. My bucket is very small now!!! How did I ever work a job? Ha.

  3. My bucket is fairly full, and has been for years. I’m learning (slowly) about the coping methods you speak of, but it gets frustrating how slow that might be. I have a brand new therapist (whom I saw for the first time today), and am hopeful she might further my education about relieving my stress better, but we’ll see. She does suffer from some of the same issues as I do (fibromyalgia for one), so at least there’s common ground. It’s a work in progress isn’t it? I’d never heard of the bucket idea until I read your post either. So the idea hasn’t (apparently) ‘hit’ Utah yet..

    1. II hope the new therapist helps with some bucket-emptying. There seem to be far too many people that seem to just want to dump more into the bucket…

  4. I’ve never heard of the stress bucket before and it’s a good visual aid for understanding the stress/mental illness ‘dynamic’ that happens during the day- or indeed during a longer period such as a year. Thanks for sharing this Ashley. Love to you and the Piggies xo

  5. This bucket makes us understand and remember better. It is also a good, supportive resource for us not to thinking about kicking the bucket when things get too bad. And it directs us to see the choices we can make like staying away from the stressors or doing something to drain out the fluid of stress. The fluidity of stress lets us see that nothing stressful is permanent(●’◡’●)

  6. I think this is a great way to think about how we take care of ourselves and also recognise that we all have a breaking point if there’s too much stress and not enough self care – I usually talk about stress/resilience and coping but think it will be the bucket from now on! Xx

  7. When I was a teenager in the UK, to say you had a ‘large bucket’ meant something else entirely! 😂

    I think it’s a good model, albeit a simple one, for visual representation purposes, which makes the idea easier to imagine. xx

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