You might be wondering what is a stress bucket and how does it help me with my anxiety and depression? I’ve seen a lot of different versions of the ‘stress bucket’ metaphor used in mental health explanations. Some talk about how it should have lots of holes to allow the stress to pour out. Others tell you to throw a lot in there, put a lid on it and then forget about it.
In this post, I’d like to tell you more about the solution-focused concept of the stress bucket metaphor and why it’s so useful for your mental health.
What is the stress bucket? – My solution-focused approach
In my work, I use the stress bucket as a metaphor for the part of the brain that is closely associated with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the filing cabinet of the brain, storing all your learned behaviour and thought patterns. However, before any files get stored and filed away in there, we need to sort through them.
We need to check if they are useful files, such as the skills we have learned to drive or ride a bike. And if they’re something like a traffic jam you were stuck in or a crisp packet blowing in the wind, we can just forget about them as irrelevant and free up space.
And this is where the stress bucket comes in. Whenever you have a particularly negative thought that you experienced during a time of stress, it gets stored in your stress bucket for a bit. And when you go to sleep at night, during your REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, you start to sift through those negative thoughts and begin processing them.
If the thoughts were good learning experiences, then they can be stored as a useful file in your hippocampus, something to be referred to at a later date. If it is an irrelevant negative thought that is of no real value then it is discarded (I mean, how clever is our brain during sleep, hey?).
You can let go of negative emotions this way. So, when you wake up in the morning you feel a whole lot better; this is where those sayings come from, that things look better in the morning – it’s good to sleep on it!
Ideally, you should wake up every morning with an absolutely empty stress bucket. If you don’t, it will be due to you piling too much into your bucket and not emptying it well overnight.
Why the stress bucket metaphor is useful
1. It’s a great visual aid
The brain loves images so visualising your stress in this way helps you understand the concept of how stress can accumulate over time. It makes intangible thoughts and feelings come to life so that we can then address them more objectively.
2. It’s understandable
In my explanation above, if I had continued to use words such as hippocampus, amygdala and left-prefrontal cortex you would have stopped reading after the first paragraph.
But you’ve just learned about brain function without even realising it. Science is so much easier to understand when we use stories, metaphors and everyday objects that we all know, like buckets.
Knowledge is power, so understanding how your brain functions during stress is really important in solution-focused therapy. Let’s just keep talking about buckets, right?
3. It opens up the conversation around mental health
It’s so much easier to talk about a stress bucket than anxiety or depression. It just helps reframe the language around mental health so we can have a more open conversation about it – that’s mental health awareness.
Whenever I give a presentation to companies the feedback that I always get is that “everyone is talking about their stress bucket now”. This is fantastic – it’s easier to say “my stress bucket is really full today” instead of “I’m stressed and anxious”, isn’t it?
4. It creates some dissociation
Imagining a bucket of stress that you might carry around creates a bit of distance between you and your negative thoughts and feelings. This helps you to understand that although you may experience negative thoughts, your thoughts do not define you. They can change.
In solution-focused therapy, this is a huge breakthrough point that we try to achieve and I ensure that I make this clear from the very first session. It is extremely empowering and makes you feel more hopeful of a positive future.
I’ve seen many different ways to describe the stress bucket and they are all correct. Anything that helps you understand and manage your mental health is going to be helpful, so find what works for you.