What’s filling up your stress bucket?
What pressures and anxieties crop up in your daily life? Many people start their day with a hefty dose of worry. As sleep leaves us and we become more awake a little niggle of anxiety can start in our stomachs. ‘What am I worried about?’ we might think. We quickly do an appraisal, ‘Is it the kids? Bills? Work? Or maybe that party or meeting I’m dreading?’
Almost instantly we settle on something and all sorts of negative thoughts and scenarios flood our minds. Whatever we have decided the source of our anxiety could be, we conjure up images of disaster – things that might happen to the children, how challenging we fear it will be to sort out our finances or problems at work, how awkward we might feel socially or how disastrously a meeting might go.
But was this imagined potential disaster the source of our worry in the first place? Instead, were we experiencing an ill-defined fear and dread that we have now attached to something that might happen – but more probably won’t happen? Is it possible we were feeling anxious because of a gradual accumulation of stress?
If you’ve read my previous article Three Wise Monkeys then you will be aware of the evolutionary sources of anger, anxiety and depression. In order to survive, our ancestors developed an internal alarm system to protect us from danger – we call it our primitive or emotional mind.
As we experience stressful events – rushing for work, disputes with colleagues or loved ones, concerns about money and all the other pressures of modern life – our primitive brain responds, and as the stress continues it becomes increasingly vigilant. The primitive mind searches for the source of the danger – and if that source were a wild animal or other threat from which we could run, hide or fight this would be all well and good. But in the modern world the dangers are far more elusive and require the engagement of our rational, intellectual mind to solve.
In solution focused hypnotherapy we often like to discuss the concept of a “stress bucket”. It is an analogy for the way in which stressful thoughts and incidents will eventually disengage our intellectual mind and engage our primitive emotional brain.
There is a conscious part of your mind – the part that’s reading this article and is aware of your day-to-day activities and interactions. When you are in a calm situation and feel safe your conscious mind is in communication with what we term the intellectual mind – a resource that can help you accurately appraise any situation and come up with positive solutions to help you overcome obstacles.
However, imagine a bucket inside of you – a bucket that gradually fills up each time you experience a challenging event, ruminate over upsetting aspects of the past or imagine things going wrong in the future. As the bucket gets fuller and fuller, the influence of the intellectual mind diminishes. Our mind and body misunderstand this increasing stress as a threat to our existence. If we were in a life and death situation, this would not be the time to relax and think things through; following our inbuilt survival protocols, our primitive emotional mind steps in to resolve the situation.
The primitive mind – a survival mind – will look for a fight or flight response. However, with its attendant lack of rationality, increase in adrenalin, cortisol and other stress hormones, the primitive mind will not help us resolve modern day problems. Anxiety, anger, and the possibility of depression will not keep us safe from mortgage or rent problems, the threat of redundancy or other modern risks.
So, to go back to our early morning worrier, what is really happening in their mind? The probability is that they already have a full stress bucket. As they wake up, their primitive mind, ever vigilant, ensures that it is the possibility of danger that is uppermost in their thoughts. In millennia gone by our ancestors would have responded by scanning the surrounding landscape for signs of danger, but now we scan our thoughts and project into the future all sorts of fears and worries. The primitive mind is a negative mind – with a full stress bucket we think only of the worst that could happen, ignoring all the positive things that might occur in the days and weeks ahead.
We can find ourselves in the grip of a vicious circle – the negative forecasting creates anxiety that fills up our stress bucket even more which only causes more negative thinking and so on.
The good news is that hypnotherapy can set matters aright. REM sleep is nature’s way of emptying our stress bucket – during REM we dream and move stressful experiences from the primitive brain, where they cause an emotional response, to the intellectual brain, where they become narrative memories over which we have better control.
A skilled therapist will help you develop an optimal sleep pattern to maximise the benefits of REM. They may also offer a recorded audio to listen to as you drift off to sleep at night. The dream-like metaphors and imagery help you to slip into a healthy REM sleep pattern.
During weekly therapy sessions you get the opportunity to discuss all the positive things happening in your life. You can talk about the future in a positive way too, looking at what small steps you might take to make your desired future – one free of anxiety and stress – a reality. This is followed by a session of hypnotherapy on the couch; hypnotic metaphors and imagery serve to empty the stress bucket, relaxing the primitive mind and allowing you to regain intellectual control during any challenges you might face.
With our intellectual mind engaged we can face each day with optimism, looking forward to any challenges – armed with a sense of resilience, self-confidence, and a deep knowledge of our ability to succeed.
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About Jon Creffield
Jon Creffield (HPD, DHP, DSFH) is a CNHC registered Solution Focused Hypnotherapist specialised in using relaxation, guided imagery and metaphor to help clients achieve life-enhancing changes. He is a member of the National Council For Hypnotherapy and the Association For Solution Focused Hypnotherapy. Jon is based in North Somerset near Bristol.