How Full is Your Stress Bucket?

The stress bucket model demonstrates how stress works. It helps us to understand our current levels of stress, reflect upon our coping strategies and improve our wellbeing.

Stress is our body's natural response to a demand or threat. When we feel stressed, we have made two main judgements:

  1. We feel threatened by the situation
  2. We believe that we are not able to meet the threat
If you’re interested in finding out more about stress buckets and mental health best practice you can also download our stress bucket template.

Everyone experiences some level of stress every day, and, in the right amount, this can be a good thing. It is the drive that gets us out of bed, ready for the day, and ready to function normally. However, stress can often turn bad when our stress is greater than our capacity to cope. If ignored, this can grow into a serious problem that affects physical health as well as mental health and wellbeing.

This article explains how stress buckets help people to be more mindful of their vulnerability to stress, allowing them to develop healthy coping strategies.

What is the stress bucket?

The stress bucket model was created by Alison Brabban and Douglas Turkington to demonstrate how stress works. It helps us to understand our current levels of stress, reflect upon our coping strategies and improve our mental wellbeing. The below image is an example of how the stress bucket works:

The Stress BucketThe Stress Bucket Analogy (Brabban and Turkington, 2002)

Imagine you have a bucket. The size of your stress bucket relates to your level of vulnerability, so everyone's bucket is different. The bigger the bucket, the less vulnerable you are to stress. The smaller the bucket, the more vulnerable you are to stress. In this sense, the bucket can be thought of as a 'stress vulnerability bucket'.

As the bucket fills up with stress, it shows our capacity to cope. If the bucket overflows, too much stress is experienced and problems can develop.

Our tap relates to our coping strategies which help relieve stress. Our tap works well when we employ good coping mechanisms. If we fall into bad habits and apply bad coping mechanisms, our tap stops working effectively.

What makes someone more vulnerable to stress?

Everyone experiences stress at some level although some people are more resilient to the effects of stress than others. Our vulnerability is determined by several factors, including genetics, early childhood experiences, and level of social support. If we've experienced high levels of stress in the past, it can also make us more likely to suffer from stress in the future.

What causes stress?

Everyone has different stress triggers. Common sources of stress include personal worries such as financial concerns, relationships, bereavements, physical health, and caring for family members. Stress can also be work-related and include workload, workplace conflict, and lack of perceived control.

Can stress ever be good for us?

Small levels of manageable stress, known as 'eustress' can help us to achieve things, such as studying for an exam or completing a project at work. Low levels of stress motivate us to focus, work hard and complete tasks that will give us a sense of achievement and fulfilment. We have to be careful that this stress isn't prolonged as this can result in feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious and can lead to dangerous chronic stress.

What happens if we have too much stress?

If we experience too much stress, such as chronic stress from a very busy job or difficult situation at home, our stress bucket can overflow. We may experience outbursts, become snappy with colleagues, or become withdrawn. In real terms, this is when problems develop, causing mental and physical illnesses and a general inability to go about daily life normally. Ignoring stress builds up, which can harm our mental health - we must face it to manage it.

If you believe that you're experiencing stress, you can find helpful advice from the NHS on personal feelings and symptoms of stress.

What coping strategies can we use to manage stress?

To prevent our bucket from overflowing, we need to implement appropriate coping strategies for dealing with stress. Good coping strategies will open the tap, allowing the bucket to empty. Bad coping mechanisms might include excessive drinking, over or under eating, smoking, bottling things up and lashing out. These bad coping mechanisms may feel like a release, but they are 'false taps' that actually lead to more stress filling the bucket.

Whereas, good coping mechanisms include exercising, meditation, hobbies, and helping others. Talking to someone you trust about your problems can also help to empty your stress bucket. Having support from others on how to make your life less stressful is an excellent step towards better stress management. It is also important that you are given the opportunity to talk about any stress problems at work so that you can identify how your workplace stress can be better managed.

How full is your stress bucket? What are your coping strategies for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression? Are they good or bad? How can you use the stress bucket concept to manage your mental health?

Stress bucket worksheet template

If you’d like to carry out this activity for yourself or for you team to complete as an exercise, we have a printable stress bucket worksheet that you can download for free.

Download our mental health stress bucket template.

To find out more and discover other useful tools and techniques for managing your mental health, take a look at our free online wellbeing course.

Everyone at Altruist Enterprises is passionate about improving your stress-management skills so that you can get the most out of life. Obtain practical tools for managing your stress levels through our stress management course or online stress management course.

This article has been updated and was originally posted in 2020.

Katie founded Altruist Enterprises in 2013. Since then, she has grown Altruist into a nationwide provider of mental health and resilience training. Katie is a seasoned public speaker and innovator of bespoke mental health courses. In 2022, Katie won the Cambridge Social Innovation Prize awarded by Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge and Cambridge Judge Business School.

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