Your capacity to hold all the things in your life that cause your body or your mind any kind of stress can be thought of as a bucket. It holds all of your responsibilities, the myriad stresses and burdens you face. It holds the commitments you take on—the big ones and the small ones, the temporary and the long term, those you’ve chosen and those life has handed to you. Eventually, if you continue to load things into your bucket—whether by choice, necessity, or simply because you’ve spent more time on the planet—your bucket will overflow. When it does, you experience overwhelm.
Remember: overwhelm can manifest physically as disease or symptoms; mentally as anxiety, depression, or other psychological disorders; and spiritually as a sense of generalized purposelessness or dissatisfaction with everyone and everything. Whatever your genetic predisposition or weak spot is, that’s likely to be the place or the way that overwhelm will announce itself.
On the other hand, if there’s room in your bucket, you have the capacity and space in your life to deal with the inevitable stresses that pop up as a matter of course. You’re better able to manage whatever comes your way in any given day or any given season of your life.
Creating and maintaining that extra room in your bucket is what prevents overwhelm over the long haul. That’s why it’s imperative to pay attention to, and deliberately curate, the contents of your bucket. If your bucket is filled with things that aren’t important to you, you don’t have room for the things that are truly important. Your marriage may add some stressors to your bucket, but you want to be there for it. You want to devote time to your own long-term goals, even if taking time to work on them puts stress on your schedule.
Getting a handle on which stresses you want to remove and which you can remove, and then systematically removing them, ensures both that your energy is devoted to what means most and that you have room left for the inevitable unanticipated stressors that life throws at you. When you have room available, those day-to-day curveballs don’t have, or don’t have as much of, a negative impact on your health and well-being. It changes the game.
Thinking about how full your bucket is, and enumerating all of the stresses that you face day in and day out, can be daunting at first, but it is actually the single most important thing that can be done to begin decreasing your sense of overwhelm. Once you can enumerate them, you will be able to identify many things that you can address with ease, making more room to deal with the more difficult stresses or the things that you simply cannot change.
What’s in Your Bucket?
Stresses arise in a variety of domains common to the human experience: physical, mental, and emotional health; nutrition; environment; relationships; habits and lifestyle; and your current circumstances. How much stress you experience in each domain will vary dramatically from person to person based on your own history and situation.
It’s literally impossible to get rid of all the things in your bucket that are adding to your burden, but the good news is that you don’t have to. By examining what stresses you experience in each domain, it becomes easier to see both what is driving your overwhelm and where you can make the most effective changes with the least amount of effort. For example, for more restful sleep, there are a number of approaches that might work for you. You could decide to take the TV out of your bedroom, stop drinking caffeine after lunch, exercise more, use melatonin, or even take a prescription drug if that lines up with your values.
The Big, the Small, the Minutiae
The stresses in your bucket range from the obvious and acute to minor irritants to stresses so under the radar you may not even be aware how they are affecting you. In conventional approaches to stress management, the stresses we think about managing are usually those arising from major life events and changes, such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, getting married, moving, starting school, a sick family member, work pressures, or other circumstances that are out of our control.
No doubt these big, easy-to-identify stresses create a significant impact. But lurking quietly behind them are the stresses that seem too small to count — the ones that accumulate day to day, month to month, year to year, and over a lifetime. They are the daily issues and annoyances of life — dissatisfying interactions with people we encounter while at work or school or doing errands, or minor undone tasks. They can arise as a result of the choices we make about a plethora of things, including our food, our environment, our work, who we choose to spend time with, family dynamics, finances, and how we use our time.
Some of the things that affect us are common to first-world cultures: relationship conflicts, dealing with bureaucracy or technology snafus, sitting at a desk all day, or doing taxes. Some of them are more specific to the individual: driving a car for a living if you have chronic back pain, too much sugar in your diet if you have high (or low) blood sugar, not enough sleep if you have migraines. Some are smaller and specific: an ingrown toenail keeping you from exercising, eating ice cream if you’re lactose intolerant. Or they are smaller and more universal: eating too much at dinner, forgetting to floss, or standing in a long line at the post office.
Then there is the really small stuff: a squeaky drawer, the missing button on your favorite shirt, a slow drain. Most people don’t think about such trivial things as having any impact at all on their being overwhelmed, but little things add up quickly, especially when they also have bigger things on their plates.
Overall, there are likely to be many things that you aren’t yet conscious of or don’t yet understand are causing you stress — physically, mentally, or emotionally. These are the real drivers of overwhelm, and learning what they are and how to unload them is the path to getting your life back. By taking stock of all of the big, small, and minute stresses that burden your system, you will be able to identify dozens of stresses that you can eliminate from your bucket, thus making more room for you to deal with the stresses you can’t.
How to Think about Change
Everything in your bucket can be put into one of three categories:
Things you can’t change
Things you can change
Things you choose not to change
THINGS YOU CAN’T CHANGE
There are always things in life that are out going to be out of your control. People disappoint you. Companies undergo mass layoffs. Your car gets sideswiped. Termites get at the foundation of your house. Your country elects officials that you are ideologically opposed to. The list goes on and on and on. When you’re faced with these events and situations, it’s easy to get down or feel overwhelmed. Ultimately, though, if we let ourselves get anxious, down, or immobilized because of things we truly can’t change, we are setting ourselves up for a long and difficult haul. And there is another option: acceptance. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy about injustice or difficult circumstances, or that you should stop fighting for what’s important to you, but it does mean choosing not to let it undo you.
THINGS YOU CAN CHANGE
The number of stresses in your life that you do have control over — things you can change, if you choose to — dwarfs the number of stresses that you don’t. You may or may not change them all — or certainly not all at once — but I want you to know that it is well within your power to make easy, impactful shifts in your life. The less you feel like a victim of stress and circumstance, and the more you exercise choice in your own life, the less overwhelmed you’ll be.
THINGS YOU CHOOSE NOT TO CHANGE
Just because you can change things doesn’t mean you will choose to change them, or that choosing to change them is even the best option. You could move to get away from the noisy neighbors, but that would mean taking your child out of a school that is a great fit. You could cancel cable and get a gym membership, but watching football is how your family connects after a long, busy week. Life is complicated. We have responsibilities and commitments. We have many things we want to do.
Given that, I want you to acknowledge that there are some things you know you should do but aren’t up for doing right now. If you acknowledge that you are choosing not to change something — be it more significant (a relationship or a job) or less significant (staying away from coffee or not using plastic water bottles) — you can stop judging yourself and get on with the things that you are willing to do. This decision puts control firmly back in your own hands and reduces stress you add to your bucket by worrying about all the things you’re not doing or why you can’t surmount the limitations of time, space, and gravity.
Many of the stresses in our lives are there because it seems easier to ignore them than to deal with them. I call these “tolerations.” A toleration can be a little thing, like a dirty window, splitting fingernails, or the squeaky door that has been making you cringe for six months every time you go into your office. But it can also be a bigger thing, such as the unspoken anger that you’ve been carrying toward someone for years, chronic pain you’re afraid to see a doctor about, or a moldy basement that you are not dealing with because you’re afraid to find out that fixing it will cost more than you have to spend. On some level, many of the things in your bucket are tolerations until you consciously decide to either take them out or put them in the category of things you choose not to change — right now or maybe ever.
One of my personal tolerations was my office keyboard tray. A few years ago, I pulled it toward me and the slider mechanism that had been smooth was suddenly bumpy and loud. From then on, every time I slid the tray out, it went “bunk-a-bunk-a-bunka-bunk.” It drove me out of my mind.
I spent an entire year unsuccessfully trying different ways to fix it until it became obvious that I had two only choices left: hire a handyman or just deal with it. I decided that I would just deal. This was something I was choosing not to change. Just like that, I had put myself back in charge and that alone changed my experience. A situation I had been tolerating, which had been causing me an unreasonable amount of stress for an unreasonable amount of time, was now no longer an issue — no longer taking up space in my bucket.
There are many things that make us put up with tolerations. Laziness. Fear of confrontation. Worry about how much something will cost. Concern that something will take too much time or open a Pandora’s box of other tasks to do or things that need to be handled. Or simply putting other day-to-day tasks or situations first, again and again.
Always, though, when you finally do deal with a toleration, you decrease your overwhelm and make more room for other changes. The smaller tolerations, like my clunky keyboard, add up, and they will continue adding to the stress in your bucket until you finally face them head-on and decide to change or not change them. And with bigger tolerations, the relief we feel when we address them is often profound, as we usually haven’t even realized how much they have been weighing us down.
(Excerpted from Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out by Dr. Samantha Brody. Copyright © 2019 Dr. Samantha Brody. To be published in January 2019 by Sounds True)