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Buckets Full of Stress

The stress bucket model can help us think about our capacity to handle stress.

Key points

  • The stress bucket model is a helpful tool to think about stress and capacity.
  • Some things in the "stress bucket" are relatively permanent.
  • Healthy release strategies can help manage stress effectively.

Stress is inevitable in today’s world, yet many of us are not navigating life with stress effectively. As a result, we are being held back from living healthy and meaning-filled lives. It is important for us to understand that our control lies within how we work with our stress.

Building awareness around our stress is the first step we can take to manage it. In my previous post, "The Nervous System Is Not Meant to Manage Emails," I invited you to get curious about your personal stress patterns and go-to behaviours. This is a great exercise for reflecting on your sources of stress, what your stress behaviours look like, and what proactive measures you’d like to be taking to prevent your bucket from overflowing. You may ask, “My bucket?” Let me show you.

Analogies are invaluable tools that can help us grasp complex concepts. In my latest book, Stress Wisely: How to Be Well in an Unwell World, I explore a helpful analogy that was first introduced by Alison Brabban and Douglas Turkington in 2002 for building an understanding of our stress, our capacity, and our releases.

While the stress bucket model (Brabban & Turkington, 2002) was initially designed for use in the mental health field, it offers a visual representation for all of us. What’s remarkable is that this model provides a familiar context that is effective in supporting everyone from toddlers to top CEOs.

Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe
Buckets of Stress by Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe
Source: Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe

We all have a bucket that we carry. The size of our bucket, its materials, and how it was built relate to our vulnerabilities. I believe that these things can also relate to our privilege and lived experiences. The size of our bucket is also relative. Some people’s buckets may be larger if their resources, supports, and opportunities are abundant. Others may begin with smaller buckets because of the situations they were born into.

At the bottom of the bucket, we have what we always carry. Our biological and genetic underpinnings live in our bucket. This is the content that is relatively permanent, such as our personality, temperament, predispositions, or biological conditions. Our genetics can also be changed by generational trauma that has been passed down and this will take up space in our bucket.

On top of this, we all have everyday stressors that get added to the bucket. Some examples might be financial worries, caring for an aging parent, interpersonal challenges, navigating change, health concerns, as well as responding to an email from your boss and sitting in traffic. We might notice ourselves shifting from a calm state to a mildly stressed state and even into a state of overwhelm as these get added to our bucket. If we are carrying a lot at the bottom already, new stressors don’t have much room before the bucket overflows.

We also have a buffer zone in each of our buckets. This is the space between our stress levels and our overflow point. This is where stressing wisely practices are beneficial. It is in our buffer zone that we can live our well life.

Our buckets also have a release valve. These are the coping strategies we have learned and picked up across our lifespan that help us let go of stress and make room in our bucket. Some of our coping mechanisms are adaptive, such as the five forces of recovery—solitude, connection, music, nature, and gratitude. Other behaviours can be maladaptive, such as substance use, overspending, isolation, procrastination, or any form of self-sabotage. Maladaptive strategies can work like a circuit. Rather than releasing the built-up stress, we recirculate it. These maladaptive coping strategies can release stress in the moment, yet they are not effective in the long term and risk becoming problematic. These strategies often cause added stress over time.

For many of us, on any given day, our bucket is about 95 percent full, and stressors come in faster than we can process or release them. Even if we have the best adaptive strategies in place, our bucket can overflow, and we will experience feelings of overwhelm. When our bucket is full, there is not enough physical, emotional, or mental buffer to manage the unexpected. Also, if there is an accumulation of stressors that go unchecked or unrelieved over time, we risk experiencing burnout in our buckets.

An optimal stress bucket experience includes a manageable stress level, adaptive release strategies, and a generous buffer zone. Stress is all around us, yet we can take actions that provide us with relief from the stressors.

Examples of Healthy Releases and Coping Mechanisms

  • Moving your body
  • Eating well
  • Sleeping well
  • Deep breathing
  • Journaling
  • Reading
  • Engaging in a hobby
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Practicing positive self-talk
  • Talking to a trusted family member, friend, or professional
  • Spending time outside in nature
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Taking a break
  • Listening to music
  • Meditating
  • Asking for help

Creating an Emotional Game Plan

We often need an outlet for our emotions. I encourage you to replace the prompts below with behaviours that work for you and tendencies you want to avoid.

  • When I feel sad, I talk with a trusted loved one. I don’t destructively revisit the past.
  • When I feel angry, I exercise or get outside. I don’t send emails or talk about it too soon.
  • When I feel anxious, I slow everything down or make lists or plans. I don’t make sudden changes or avoid things that matter.
  • When I feel depleted, I get back to the basics of sleep, food, movement, and connection. I don’t take on more work or people-please.

I feel that it is important to note that our buckets and their contents are unique, and we never truly know what someone is carrying. An event that is stressful for one person may not be a stressor to someone else. A strategy that is effective for one person may not be effective in supporting somebody else. Let’s be gentle and kind as we make our way through this unwell world.

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your stress bucket:

  • How full is your bucket in this moment?
  • What is filling up your stress bucket?
  • What are your healthy releases?

We are one choice away from being okay in this moment, my friends. What is your next right step?


Brabban, A., & Turkington, D. (2002). The search for meaning: Detecting congruence between live events, underlying schema and psychotic symptoms. In A.P. Morrison (Ed.), A Casebook of Cognitive Therapy for Psychosis (pp. 59-75). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Hanley-Dafoe, R. (2023). Stress wisely: How to be well in an unwell world. Page Two.

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