What Emotional Capacity Is and Why It’s Important

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 time. 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 demonstrate 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. Your 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 more severely.

We’ll start to feel the effects of burn out, start to experience increased symptoms of depression or generalised anxiety disorder, feel fatigued, experience headaches or nausea, and we’re unable to cope with life in the way we once did.

Adding Holes To Our Stress Bucket

To stop our bucket from overflowing we need to add holes to our bucket; outlets to allow some of this stress to flow out in a healthy way.

  1. Self Care – The thing to remember when considering self-care is the ‘self’ – the things which energy, help you process, calm and soothe you. If we are looking after ourselves and making time for our own needs, we will keep our levels low enough to be able to avoid them overflowing.
  2. Saying No – We need to monitor our own stress bucket. We can’t take on extra pressure if we are already filling up too quickly. That might be telling your employer you can’t take on extra work, telling a friend you are not able to help with a project or telling yourself you need to stop trying to please everyone else.
  3. Saying Yes to You – Spend time doing things you enjoy. When you are happy and relaxed it 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 keep your stress levels lower and help you identify areas of your life that need adjustment for this to happen.
  5. Relaxation – Whether that is mindfulness, exercise, yoga or something else – spending time in 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 seeing a doctor when needed all help us look after our physical health – which in turn helps keep our stress bucket stable. When we become ill our stress bucket can shrink, leading to a much higher risk of it overflowing.

It is important to remember that our holes will all be different things, we all have our own self-care and our own way to relieve our stress. Find what works for you and if you’re unsure, monitor how you feel after experimenting with different activities; talking to someone you trust, journalling, drawing, painting, sewing, etc.

We might think the best thing to do is to just empty the bucket and start afresh. We might take a holiday, we might leave a stressful job or end a difficult relationship and this will act like turning the bucket upside down. But if we haven’t also added in lots of holes to our bucket, it 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 when we feel we are reaching our emotional capacity, but if we stop the self-care, the bucket will fill back up again. Self-care is not only for when we are unwell – it is a preventative tool too.

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.

We all deserve to give ourselves a break

Different pressures will add a different level of water depending on our situation. Single parents may find bedtimes more stressful, trying to juggle bath, bed, washing, and housework. A working parent may feel pulled in too many directions, whereas a stay at home parent may feel they never get a break. Only children feel pressure to care for aging parents and teenagers feel pressure to perform in school or university and plan for their future.

It is not a competition and it is important to remember that your own emotional load is your own responsibility. It is okay to say no when someone asks for emotional help if you don’t have that spare capacity. You never need to feel guilty for that.

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