If you’ve attended any of our training workshops, heard any of our keynotes or followed any of our social media posts, you’ll know that we often talk about anxiety in the context of a metaphorical stress bucket. Here we explain the stress bucket in some detail and how we can empty it!
What causes anxiety?
Did you know that anxiety is caused by negative thinking?
That’s right, every negative thought we have is converted into anxiety, meaning that how we THINK directly impacts how we FEEL.
When we worry about a situation, we make judgements about whether it is good or bad. These judgements are not always correct. It is not the events in our lives that necessarily cause the perception of crisis. It’s our thought patterns surrounding the events in our life.
Stress is not the result of our work, or our boss, or our family, or our finances. It is not the result of our journey to work or our health challenges or in fact any other circumstances we are in. Stress is the result of the thoughts we have in relation to those things.
Shakespeare had the right idea when he said: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
What is the Stress Bucket?
Every one of our negative thoughts get accumulated and stored in our metaphorical stress bucket.
Our brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality and so, when we worry about something, anxiety is created as if it’s actually happening. If we worry about an event for instance, 20 times, anxiety is created 20 times and that all goes into the stress bucket.
It’s not hard to see how our stress bucket fills and when that happens and the next worrying thought occurs, there is nowhere left in the bucket for it to go and so the bucket overflows.
When our stress bucket overflows, we lose access to the intellectual sensible part of our brain – the part that knows just what to do and we move down to the primitive flight or fight part, which is solely concerned with survival.
The bad news here is that the average emotional age of the primitive part of our brain is about 4 to 5 years old.
Whilst 4 to 5 year olds are very cute, when faced with a challenge, they are often more likely to have a tantrum than come up with an intelligent suggestion.
This primitive part of our brain has 3 default ways of responding:
Whilst this response does not necessarily mean that we are suffering with an anxiety disorder or with depression, it does mean that we might exhibit many of the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.
So, let’s look at how we can shift our perspective so that we can have more positive thoughts and create more positive feelings.
There are two things we need to do to reduce negative thoughts and the negative feelings associated with stress and increase positive feelings and the first is to empty the stress bucket.
Emptying the Stress Bucket
If our stress bucket level is low, we function from our intellectual brain, no matter what life throws at us. Whatever the situation, we are able to make a rational assessment of it and to call on all our resources to enable us to cope with or deal with it.
So how can we empty our stress bucket?
Thankfully we do have a method of doing this and it’s called sleep.
When we sleep properly, our brain empties our stress bucket automatically by re-running the events of the day that have ended up in our stress bucket (both the real ones and the imagined ones) and processes them, so that we wake up without any of the associated stress.
This is the part of sleep that we call REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, or the dream state.
You may know how this works already:
A work colleague does something at work that annoys you during the day. You find that you’re going over and over it in your mind on the way home and when you get home, you tell your partner all about it. You talk about it more over dinner and they agree with you that it was annoying.
When you go to bed, what happened is still going around your head – you can’t believe they did what they did and you’re having conversations with them in your mind and obsessing about how unfair, annoying, unhelpful or cheeky it was.
The role of REM
When you go to sleep your brain will re-run that event in your REM sleep, and process the details of the event in the form of dreams, so that when you wake up in the morning you will have either forgotten about it completely, or you will be able to rationalise it, get it into perspective it and be left wondering why you let yourself get so annoyed about it in the first place.
What has happened is that the processing that has occurred during REM has stripped the emotion from that event and instead turned it into a useful narrative memory that is now stored in your library of resources for you to reference in future decision making.
Well, that’s how it works when our stress bucket isn’t overflowing. But what happens when it is?
Sleep and an overflowing Stress Bucket
When our stress bucket is overflowing, this process is impeded.
Instead of waking up with stressful events fully processed and the emotion stripped out of them, we wake up with them only semi processed, or completely unprocessed and sometimes, we wake up mid-process!
Ideally, our sleep patterns should consist of about 20% REM sleep (to restore our minds and empty out the stress bucket) and 80% slow wave sleep (to restore our bodies).
This is because REM sleep is actually very taxing on our brain and we need the majority of our sleep to be restorative, so that we wake up feeling refreshed and energised and ready for another day.
When we are in REM and processing life events, our brain has to work about 4 times harder than if it were doing a maths exam.
It’s true. REM uses at least 400% more energy than our waking state!
So, when our stress bucket is full, our brain has too much to process in that 20% and it fails to do an adequate job.
Getting our sleep patterns right, so that we have both ample duration and quality of sleep, is essential to managing the levels in our stress bucket so we can function from our intellectual mind. However, as you can see, sometimes that’s easier said than done, as whilst this natural REM process is designed to empty our stress bucket, when it’s overflowing, it becomes challenging.
So how do we empty an overflowing stress bucket?
Emptying an overflowing Stress Bucket
The key to emptying an overflowing stress bucket is getting ample quality and duration of sleep.
To find out more about the role of sleep in mental health, read our blog here.
The good news is that there is another way of simulating this REM Process and it’s called Hypnosis (or trance).
Hypnosis (or trance) has historically been misunderstood, but it is actually a very natural state of altered consciousness which occurs when the brain wave frequency slows down and the prefrontal cortex in the brain becomes deactivated.
When this occurs, the brain goes about processing events and feelings in the same way as REM sleep.
Hypnosis can be achieved relatively easily, either by visiting a hypnotherapist, or by listening to a hypnotherapeutic recording.
We have provided one for you to listen to here. >>>