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Taking Control of Your Taps

As you’re reading this article, how are you feeling? Are you feeling relaxed and in control? Do you feel optimistic about your day, your workload, your personal life? Or do you instead feel overwhelmed or that things are moving beyond your control?  

If you answered yes to the second part of that question, you might be feeling the symptoms of stress. Whilst not a psychiatric diagnosis like depression or anxiety, stress is closely linked to how positive your mental health is; It enjoys a cause-and-effect relationship with mental ill-health. If it’s not kept in check, over time, stress can trigger an issue. If you are the 1 in 4 living with a mental health condition, not dealing with stress can make that condition worse. It’s not always a bad thing; we need a certain amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, to survive as it triggers our fight or flight response. The problem comes when those stress levels do not reduce or continue to increase.   

Bearing this in mind, you may notice that some people can deal with a much higher stress level than others; indeed, you may know those who feel they cannot function without it. Others, however, reach their limit far quicker. This brings me to the stress container (fig 1: courtesy of Mental Health First Aid England). Understanding this concept explains why some people can be more vulnerable to stress and potentially other mental health concerns than others.   

Imagine for a moment you are carrying a container. During the day, water, representing those everyday challenges we all face, starts to fill that container, adding to the water still in your container from yesterday. Now consider the size of that container varies from person to person; this represents your vulnerability to stress and mental health concerns. You have little control over this; it hinges on genetics, your background and personality and how you’ve dealt with past trauma. The more issues you have had in your life, the smaller your container and the greater your vulnerability to stress and other mental health concerns.   

As your day continues, you fall out with a co-worker, then your manager asks you to take the lead on a project which will mean long days for the next few weeks. You have childcare concerns now you are returning to the office; your partner, who works from home, will not appreciate you working long hours.

The other elements of your role may not get the attention they need, plus England are in the final of Euro 2020, so you want to be spending your weekend watching that rather than working. Suppose that wasn’t enough; as a backdrop to that, there is a significant major change project in progress from which you are concerned your role may be significantly altered going forward or disappear altogether. You may have started the day with little water in your container, but as the day has gone on, it’s fast approaching full.   

Fig 1: The Stress Container (MHFA England)  

When the water doesn’t reach the top of the container, you may feel your stress levels are under control, but what happens when your container overflows? MHFA England refers to this as emotional snapping – that point where life gets too much, and you become unable to deal with the stress in your container or take on any more. Not only can this affect your mental wellbeing, but you may also see physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems and lethargy.  

Reducing the water level relies on the use of taps, but beware of false or blocked taps. These are the things that, in the long term, are the unhelpful things we do to cope, which result in your container continuing to fill rather than empty. You may stay up later to get work done during the week, then spend most of your weekend sleeping. You may procrastinate, shifting the stress from an immediate problem to one that could increase in magnitude later.   

The aim is to find effective water taps; those taps that allow the water to flow out of our containers freely. These include having a good support network, eating healthily, getting regular fresh air and taking time for our hobbies and interests. We often see self-care as something selfish when it’s vital to our wellbeing as, without it, we can’t be an effective tap for others or perform at our best.  

A general rule of thumb is stress is something we are comfortable talking about, whilst stigma still surrounds mental health conditions. By talking about the things that fill our containers and taking control of our taps, we can normalise and have more meaningful conversations around our mental wellbeing, encouraging and supporting others to gain greater control of their taps.  

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