Stress is our body’s normal response to increased physical and emotional pressure. When we’re
repeatedly adding to our level of stress, and don’t have anything in place to counterbalance it,
those stress levels go up and up until we reach our capacity, our emotional limits – negatively
affecting our mental wellbeing.
We all have a different capacity for stress and our own emotional capacity will change over
However, what is important is how we might manage our stress levels to prevent ever reaching
full emotional capacity.
The stress bucket
The Stress Bucket Model (Brabban and Turkington 2002) is a very useful visual tool to
how stress works and how we can both feed into and help relieve our own emotional capacity.
Imagine a bucket sitting on a stool in front of you. That bucket is your emotional capacity.
bucket may look different from our bucket or your friend’s bucket. We all have buckets of
different sizes depending on things like genetics, our life events up to this point, our age,
health, and more.
What leads us to reach our emotional capacity?
Flowing into the bucket are all the areas of your life that cause you stress – work pressures,
family pressures, lack of sleep, not eating well, disagreements with neighbours, money problems
– all of these add water to our stress bucket. And the more we add, the higher the level gets.
Eventually, that level hits the top of the bucket, and, inevitably starts to overflow. We’ve now
hit our emotional capacity.
What happens when we reach emotional capacity?
When our stress bucket is full, with the water level flush with the top of the bucket, we are
walking an emotional tightrope. Often it takes the smallest thing, just a drop added to that
bucket, for the water to overflow and for us to snap. People often refer to it as ‘the straw
that broke the camel’s back’. Other people can’t see how much water is in our buckets and what
we have experienced up until now so they often think we have overreacted.
We become much more reactive and irritable as every drop added to the bucket causes more to
splash over. The water in our bucket is full of all sorts of stress hormones such as cortisol
and adrenaline and, if left, they’ll stagnate and start to affect our physical and mental health
We’ll start to feel the effects of burn out, start to experience increased symptoms of
or generalised anxiety disorder, feel fatigued, experience headaches or nausea, and we’re unable
to cope with life in the way we once did.
What Emotional Capacity is and Why it’s Important
Adding holes to our stress bucket
To stop our bucket from overflowing we need to add holes to our bucket; outlets to allow
this stress to flow out in a healthy way.
1. Self Care – The thing to remember when considering self-care is the ‘self’ – the
energy, help you process, calm and soothe you. If we are looking after ourselves and
for our own needs, we will keep our levels low enough to be able to avoid them
2. Saying No – We need to monitor our own stress bucket. We can’t take on extra pressure
are already filling up too quickly. That might be telling your employer you can’t take
work, telling a friend you are not able to help with a project or telling yourself you
stop trying to please everyone else.
3. Saying Yes to You – Spend time doing things you enjoy. When you are happy and relaxed
ensures the taps stay clear of blockages and the stress bucket can empty smoothly.
4. Talking Therapy – A counsellor or therapist might be able to teach you techniques to
your stress levels lower and help you identify areas of your life that need adjustment
5. Relaxation – Whether that is mindfulness, exercise, yoga or something else – spending
the moment and finding techniques to relax can help keep those levels down.
6. Looking After Ourselves – Ensuring we are getting enough sleep, eating well and
doctor when needed all help us look after our physical health – which in turn helps keep
stress bucket stable. When we become ill our stress bucket can shrink, leading to a much
risk of it overflowing.
It is important to remember that our holes will all be different things, we all have our
self-care and our own way to relieve our stress. Find what works for you and if you’re
monitor how you feel after experimenting with different activities; talking to someone
trust, journalling, drawing, painting, sewing, etc.
We might think the best thing to do is to just empty the bucket and start afresh. We
holiday, we might leave a stressful job or end a difficult relationship and this will
turning the bucket upside down. But if we haven’t also added in lots of holes to our
is just going to fill up again.
We need to keep the holes open all the time as well. It’s great to add all our holes in
feel we are reaching our emotional capacity, but if we stop the self-care, the bucket
back up again. Self-care is not only for when we are unwell – it is a preventative tool
Check for signs
Even with holes in place, it’s really important we continue to monitor our stress bucket. If the
flow is running in faster than it is coming out, it is still at risk of overflowing.
Some things we can watch out for are:
• Becoming irritable. Snapping at loved ones, colleagues or ourselves when that is usually out
of character is often a sign our stress bucket is near the top.
• Using unhelpful coping strategies. When we’re starting to feel awry, we might turn to things
to help us quickly such as turning to substances such as alcohol, coffee, food or drugs. While
these strategies may initially feel like we’re putting holes in our bucket – they often become a
plug and can add even more stress to flow in.
• Feeling overwhelmed. When it all feels like it’s getting too much, it is time to step back and
re-evaluate what you are doing to keep your stress bucket below emotional capacity.
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