The Bucket Analogy: This Is What Causes Anxiety

Published on August 8, 2020
Jason Gutierrez

High school and college should’ve been all fun and no worries. Instead, some punk named “anxiety" led me down a dark alley, sucker-punched me onto the cobblestone, then continued to whale on me for the better part of a decade.

I’ve never felt more inferior.

For the longest time, I played the victim well. I blamed the world and higher powers for my misfortune. But here’s the thing - I wasn’t a victim. I was just uneducated.

I never knew what caused anxiety, and as a result, I never knew that my own actions (or lack thereof) could be causing most of my pain.

If you’re struggling, stuck, and feeling like a victim of anxiety, this article is for you. If you choose to take this advice, it may very well change your life. Or it may not. That’s up to you.

You should know that I’m not a doctor or any other kind of medical professional. So please do be skeptical with what I’m about to share (as you should for ALL advice). Instead, I’m just a guy who took a few hard-hitting punches and chose to fight back.

You finally want to know what’s causing your anxiety?

Let’s dig in.

This Is What Causes Anxiety

Anxiety is nothing more than the body’s natural reaction to stress. For as long as human beings have existed, the system has worked like this:

Back in caveman times, stressors were limited to those associated with basic needs - think food, water, and shelter. Though the breadth of problems faced was shallow, the depth was no joke. They were serious problems that often required a survival-mode response.

As such, stressful situations led to “hulking out”.

  1. Stress encountered
  2. Brain sends a danger signal to other areas of the body
  3. Adrenal glands pump adrenaline into the bloodstream
  4. Vision, hearing and other senses sharpen
  5. Heart and breathing rates increase, allowing more oxygen to flow to the brain
  6. Glucose and fat from excess storage locations are released, providing an immediate surge of energy to muscles

You’re no longer Bruce Banner - you’re the mother effin’ Hulk ready for the ultimate battle. You either fight for your life or run like hell.

The system was perfectly designed: big stressor, big anxiety response, big action.

Each step appropriately sized given the situation at-hand, which led to a mostly equal transfer of energy. Whatever your body generated from the stress response, it expelled during the act of “fighting” or “flighting”.

Today, the system still works in exactly the same manner. Except now, in the age of technology, world news, social media, and infinite content:

  • The number of stressors is far greater
  • The magnitude of the stressors (in a live-or-die sense) is much smaller
  • The anxiety response remains unchanged
  • There’s rarely a fight or flight action required

Which changes the equation to something like this:

This leads to an uneven distribution of energy. Small stressors create a big anxiety response, but the amount of energy generated during that response is no longer expelled during the subsequent action...because that action is no longer taking place. There’s no return to baseline, and instead, a new baseline, just a bit higher on the anxiety scale, is where you return.

In small doses this isn’t a problem. The human body is great at adapting and can certainly handle excess energy for a period of time. However, the human body is only human and eventually reaches its limits.

The Bucket Analogy

Imagine your well-being as a bucket of water.

You’re the bucket and the water is the varying amounts of stress in your life. The more stress you have, the heavier your bucket, and the more it weighs you down. You can handle stress but only up to a certain point. So long as the water stays within your bucket, life is all sunflowers and sunshine. As soon as your bucket overflows or some asshole kicks it over, you’ve got a big problem.

You see, anxiety is kind of like an angry maid who HATES wet floors. When your bucket spills, she yells and screams and starts beating you with a broom, making it extremely hard to think or focus on anything else.

For that reason, life is best lived in a bucket’s-half-full state of being (none of that half-empty crap).

In this state, you are appropriately balanced — your body, feelings, and emotions are in perfect harmony with the world around you.

Though life tries to rattle and knock your bucket over, it’s got enough water that it doesn’t budge, and plenty of room before you have to worry about an overflow. The water might splash around or ripple, but it always settles back down to equilibrium.

Now let’s say you’ve accumulated an awful lot of stress in your life. You’ve built up a ton of excess energy and haven’t expelled it. Your bucket is full, or worse, overflowing. 

Water hemorrhages onto the floor and the anxiety maid is in rage-mode extreme. To make matters worse, life doesn’t care how full your bucket is - it keeps piling shit on. The smallest shakes of your bucket force even more water to hit the floor.

Not a great situation.

Lastly, let’s look at the opposite scenario and say your bucket is damn-near empty.

You’ve got very little stress and plenty of room before overflow.

At first glance, you might think, “wonderful!”

But then life, unrelenting yet again, gives your bucket a swift kick. Without having much substance it topples over. Whatever water in there hits the floor and though minor, the anxiety maid also HATES knocked-over buckets.

Very unfortunate for you.

For this reason, you want your bucket to have some substance to it, which means you’re putting yourself out there - trying new things, new experiences, and coping with a healthy amount of stress.

Believe it or not, some stress is actually good for you. When you stress yourself without breaking down, your body heals, adapts, and grows stronger - just like lifting weights or how your immune system works.

Now that we’ve explored those different scenarios, we arrive back at the conclusion that a half-full bucket is ideal.

The Problem

It would be awesome if your bucket could self-sustain right here forever. No matter what you did (or didn’t do), you could breeze through life unphased.

But the world doesn’t work like that.

Instead, water steadily flows into your bucket - a result of the various stress encountered in day-to-day life.

Stress like:

  • Looming deadlines
  • Job security
  • Health insurance
  • Shitty bosses
  • Lazy, gossiping coworkers
  • Laundry that won’t fold itself
  • YouTube videos not buffering
  • Triggering tweets
  • That spider crawling on your leg (sorry about this one)
  • Spilling coffee on a white shirt
  • A boyfriend who stops texting you back
  • An aunt who drives you crazy
  • Your dog shitting on the floor
  • Your dog barking at...nothing
  • Random health problems
  • Having enough money to pay the rent or mortgage
  • Bills
  • Bills, bills, bills
  • Credit card debt
  • Lack of savings
  • Stock market fluctuations
  • Breaking news stories
  • A random stranger who calls you ugly
  • Pretty much anything else you can imagine

On a good day, the inbound stream is a small trickle.

On a bad day, it feels like a firehose.

Regardless of what kind of day you’re having, rest assured that some water is ALWAYS flowing in. And with every ounce of inbound water comes your biological stress response, aka more excess energy and a bucket inching its way towards max capacity.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, if water keeps coming in, and you want your bucket to stay half-full, you need a way to drain your bucket.

You can’t perpetually ignore all of your problems and expect nothing bad to happen.

In the old days, when staring down a salivating wolf desperate for his next meal, you had to act in order to save your life. The stress response was appropriate given the life or death situation, and the “drain” of your bucket happened naturally as you either ran like hell or man-moded the wolf into submission.

That doesn’t happen today.

The present-day human’s bucket fills up faster than ever, and with no outlets to balance the system, it’s only a matter of time before you reach the tipping point and total meltdown.

The Tipping Point

Remember the angry maid? She’s watching you like a hawk - HOPING for that first water droplet to hit the floor to make your life hell.

The tipping point is an important milestone in every anxious person’s life. It’s the exact moment when shit hit the fan and life changed forever.

It’s when your bucket can no longer contain all of the stress and excess energy you’ve accumulated. With nowhere else to go, water surges over the brim and the maid straight-up loses her shit.

And helloooooooooo anxiety!

You immediately notice its presence  — physical symptoms manifest, your thoughts become clouded, and everything feels overwhelming.

At first, it’s a pressure against your head. Then a persistent lump in your throat. A rash that you wouldn’t have thought twice about now sends you down a WebMD rabbithole, which basically confirms your worst fears that you have cancer and are slowly dying.

You overthink and overanalyze everything. Your mind races and you struggle to focus. You might start isolating; canceling plans with friends and calling in sick to work. Simple tasks become mountains to climb. The weight of your overflowing bucket feels like Thor’s hammer sitting on your chest as you try to get out of bed in the morning.

Here you are just trying to survive and make it to the next day, but that damn angry maid won’t stop screaming in your face.

Many people reach this point of anxiety hell and never make it back - living in a perpetual state of anxiousness for the rest of their lives.

It can be extremely difficult to make it through the day, let alone do the things needed to bring your bucket back to a balanced state.

Anxiety Doesn’t Come Out of Thin Air

You can imagine why it feels like anxiety blindsides you.

The path to an overflowing bucket is gradual  and takes months, sometimes years before reaching the tipping point.

In small increments, the extra weight of the water (aka stress) is unnoticeable, and your body continuously adjusts to each new baseline to keep moving forward. 

But your body can’t ignore the underlying problem forever. Even though it might not FEEL like you’re being weighed down, you are. Eventually, you reach the tipping point and suddenly can’t remember life before anxiety.

Even though you might wonder, “how did I get here?” honest self-reflection can trace your steps to piece together exactly how your bucket got to where it is today.

Spoiler alert - it’s never a case of bad luck. You’ve just been slowly accumulating anxiety and haven’t been taught how to manage it.

The Solution

Now that you know anxiety doesn’t come out of thin air, instead of feeling victimized and sorry for yourself, you can formulate a plan to reverse it.

But what’s the modern answer to this ancient problem?

You obviously can’t keep doing nothing. That’s what’s gotten you into this mess. Knowing that the amount of stressors are ever-growing, and the drain of our ancestors - one big expulsion during the ultimate fight or flight - largely isn’t in effect anymore, you have to get a little more creative in how to cope with anxiety.

As human beings have done for thousands of years, you have to adapt to your new environment.

Being an engineer, I looked at all aspects of the system and did the hard work for you. There are three variables that you can use to your advantage:

  • Flow rate out of your bucket
  • Bucket size
  • Flow rate into your bucket

Playing with each of these variables is how you restore order to the system.

Let’s explore each.

Flow Rate Out of Your Bucket

The first, most obvious way to keep up with the influx of water is to install a new drain system - one that’s unique to your anxiety and lifestyle.

Though the drains you add may not be immediate dumps like our ancestors, they still do their part to ensure your bucket stays balanced.

Types and number of drains can and should vary between individuals. Sometimes one big drain works. In other cases, more but smaller drains do the trick. The type or quantity isn’t important, what IS important is having a drain system that works for you.

So what do modern-day drains look like?

Well, you can imagine that anything related to hard exercise fits the bill. But, any modern-day approach has to include mental and social reprieves, in addition to the physical ones.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of drains that can work, meant to give you ideas rather than “you must do these”:

  • Lifting weights
  • Going for a jog or run
  • Swimming
  • Playing sports
  • Yoga
  • A good night’s sleep (7-9 hours for adults)
  • Anti-anxiety medicine prescribed by a doctor
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Talking about your problems to friends or family
  • Reflecting on and processing traumatic or stressful events
  • Hugging someone (don’t be creepy)
  • Taking action towards solving your problems (small steps work wonders)
  • Journaling / writing about your thoughts
  • Doing fun things
  • Playing, such as catch or running around with your dog (h/t to Charlie Hoehn)

All of these activities work wonders for draining your bucket. And it’s important to note that they can be done at any time of the day as a way to keep your system balanced.

Bucket Size

You might’ve noticed that I didn’t include mindfulness in the list above. Mindfulness seems like a major player in present day anxiety-related conversations, and lots of people, myself included, promote mindfulness as a big way to cope with anxiety.

So what’s the deal?

Mindfulness isn’t a drain to your bucket. It’s not a subsequent action that you can take to lower stress in your life, at least it’s never felt that way from personal experience.

Instead, mindfulness is a way to make your bucket bigger.

Imagine a tiny bucket roughly half-full of water. Any water added to the bucket is immediately noticeable and surges towards the brim.

Now picture a much larger bucket half-full of water. If the inbound flow rate stays the same, the bucket fills much more slowly, and relative to bucket size, every inbound drop of water has a smaller overall impact on the system.

This means you can handle more stress before reaching the tipping point, and the stress that you already have doesn’t cause nearly as much of a stir.

That’s how mindfulness works - it strengthens your mind and changes the way your body responds to stress. With training, mindfulness counteracts your primal intuition to panic and get super emotional, and instead act calm and rational. 

With a larger bucket, the system becomes much easier to manage on a day-to-day basis due to that extra wiggle room.

Flow Rate Into Your Bucket

The last way to level out your bucket is to throttle the flow rate of inbound water. Since water = stress, this is where you look to limit the amount of stress in your life.

There are quite a few ways to do this:

  • Avoid unhealthy and negative relationships (friends, family, lovers, etc.) like the plague
  • Cancel non-critical appointments (especially ones you dread)
  • Eliminate activities you don’t like as much as possible
  • Engage in meaningful work. If your job doesn’t do it for you, find it elsewhere (i.e. side hustles, volunteering, etc.)
  • Don’t procrastinate. Stalling important work builds LOTS of stress
  • Drink plenty of water to limit internal stress on your body
  • Stop boozing so much
  • Eat healthy, non-inflammatory foods
  • Go for a walk (the exercise is minor, but getting outside and unwinding feels great)
  • Don’t accumulate debt

Think of these as preemptive actions to mitigate stress and ease the flow of water into your bucket.

If you have A LOT of stress and aren’t sure where to begin, it helps to identify the items causing the most stress and start there. Fair warning - these are the things you know are causing you stress but you’re too scared to address. Time to pony up.

Back in my worst days, I stressed over money (being a broke college kid will do that), exams and grades, and wrecked myself by drinking too much.

To rectify the situation, I:

  • Locked in a paid internship that led to a full-time job
  • Started studying and actually turning in homework
  • Stopped drinking five nights a week (also helped my finances)

It was pretty incredible how quickly my situation turned around after resolving my biggest contributors to stress.

Key Factors to Note

Before letting you run off to plan your new bucket strategy, there are a few important details to note:

  • Anxiety is very personal. Design your bucket in whatever way works best for you.
  • Any drain can work. Many drains work VERY WELL in conjunction with one another. Don’t limit yourself.
  • Largely ignore advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about, especially when it starts with “just do…”
  • Everybody’s bucket is a different size and we shouldn’t pretend that genetics and early life experiences don’t define the starting point. But everyone can work with the cards they’ve been dealt and improve their situation.
  • Balancing your bucket is not a one time deal. You need to design a system that works for the long haul. Anxiety comes roaring back if you ignore it for too long.
  • On a lighter note, once you reach the tipping point and recover once, it’s generally easier to recover again
  • Your bucket is MUCH easier to manage when it’s not overflowing. Stay proactive as opposed to reactive.
  • Small steps work wonders when your bucket feels too heavy to lift.

In Summary

Us humans face very modern, (mostly) minor stressors in comparison to our ancestors; however, the anxiety response remains the same. This means we’re fighting an onslaught of stress and worry that lead to a very BIG anxiety we have to adapt.

Looking at your anxiety as a slow-filling bucket, it’s easy to imagine how stress quietly builds and sneaks up on you. If you don’t want to reach the tipping point (i.e. anxiety hell), your best bet is to live life in the “half-full” state of being.

But this doesn’t happen on its own - stress continually flows in. So, you’ve got to design a system to effectively manage your always-filling bucket.

There are three ways to do this:

  • Improve the flow rate out of your bucket aka build modern-day “drains”
  • Increase the size of your bucket by training your mind
  • Decrease the flow rate into your bucket by minimizing unnecessary stress

Once you get your anxiety under control, it becomes much easier to manage. And now that you know what causes anxiety, you can take the necessary steps to make that happen.

It’s not just a shit roll of the dice. And you’re in much more control than you think. Time to take it back.


Like what you see?

Each week, I send out an email with five short thoughts that might radically improve your life (at least that's what my mother says). Join a few other thousand readers around the world.