Something for your bucket list! (stress bucket, that is...)

Imagine you're juggling. You've got colourful balls whizzing through the air, a captivated audience watching, and you're feeling pretty darn good. But then, someone throws a bowling ball into the mix. Suddenly, your carefully balanced act feels precarious. The balls wobble, your palms sweat, and the once-joyful juggling becomes a desperate attempt to avoid a colourful catastrophe.


This juggling act is a metaphor for our daily lives. The balls are the stressors we encounter – work deadlines, traffic jams, and arguments with loved ones. And just like the bowling ball, some stressors are bigger and more disruptive than others.

The stress bucket: Our capacity for coping

In CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), we use the analogy of a stress bucket to represent our capacity to handle these stressors. Every day, various hassles add water to the bucket. As long as the water level stays manageable, we cope effectively. But when stressors pile on and the bucket overflows, we feel overwhelmed, leading to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

The overflowing bucket

Sarah is a single mom juggling a demanding job and a full-time parenting role. Today, her bucket is already brimming. Her car wouldn't start, causing her to be late for work. Her boss was critical, and now her childcare provider called in sick. Sarah feels overwhelmed by the rising water level in her stress bucket. By the time she picks up her grumpy toddler, the bucket overflows. Tears well up in her eyes. She snaps at her child, feeling like a failure on all fronts.

The gremlins in the bucket: Negative core beliefs

But here's the twist: it's not just the external stressors causing Sarah's overwhelm. Lurking within her stress bucket are hidden "gremlins" – negative core beliefs that significantly impact how she perceives and reacts to situations. These gremlins might whisper things like "I'm a terrible mother" or "I can never handle anything."

Cognitive distortions: When gremlins speak

These gremlins often speak in the language of cognitive distortions – negative thinking patterns that distort reality. Common examples include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing things in extremes ("If I'm not perfect, I'm a complete failure").
  • Overgeneralization: Making broad negative conclusions based on a single event ("This one bad day means I'm a terrible mom").
  • Mental filtering: Focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation (ignoring the fact that she managed her whole morning routine despite the car trouble).

These distorted thoughts fuel the fire within the stress bucket. Every negative thought adds another splash of water, pushing Sarah closer to overwhelm.

Taming the gremlins: How CBT can help

The good news is that CBT can help you identify and challenge these gremlins. Here's how:

  • Identifying the gremlins: Your therapist will guide you in recognising the negative thoughts that pop up when you're stressed.
  • Challenging the gremlins: Together, you'll examine the evidence for and against these thoughts. Are they truly realistic? Are there alternative explanations for your situation?
  • Developing more realistic beliefs: By challenging distortions, you'll start to develop more balanced and helpful beliefs. For Sarah, this might involve replacing "I'm a terrible mother" with "This is a tough day, but I'm doing the best I can."

The gremlins get smaller

Sarah equips herself with CBT tools. She identifies the "terrible mother" gremlin when feeling overwhelmed. Instead of listening to its negativity, she challenges it. "I woke up early, got my child ready, and even dealt with car trouble. That's pretty good!" This reframing reduces the power of the gremlin, keeping the water level in her stress bucket more manageable.

Building resilience with a calmer bucket

By taming the gremlins, you not only reduce the impact of immediate stressors but also build resilience for the future. Here's how:

  • Reduced anxiety: When you learn to challenge negative thoughts, anxiety lessens its grip.
  • Improved self-esteem: Replacing negative self-talk with more compassionate self-belief boosts your confidence.
  • Better coping skills: You develop practical coping mechanisms to navigate stressful situations more effectively.
  • Taking control: Don't let the gremlins win.

Feeling overwhelmed by stress? Don't let the gremlins in your bucket win! CBT empowers you to take control of your thoughts and emotions. Remember, even the most skilled juggler can't handle a bowling ball. But with CBT, you can learn to adjust your juggling act.

Get in touch for your free consultation today. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol BS8 & BS2
Written by Tom Holland-Pearse
Bristol BS8 & BS2

Tom Holland-Pearse: Qualified therapist (9+ yrs) in NHS & private practice. Empowers individuals to navigate life's challenges & build emotional well-being.

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