The pastoral counselor placed an empty bucket in front of her with a couple of spigots on it. One spigot was at the bottom, and had a hose on it, which led to a canister. Another spigot was closer to the top. That one had a small hose on it which actually fed back into the top of the bucket.
The outside of the bucket was marked with three lines, dividing it into three sections. The one nearest the bottom said “relaxed,” the one in the middle said “normal,” and the one at the top said “too much.”
He told her this was her stress bucket. He then began pouring large cups of water into it as he labeled out loud what each represented. He said, “I’m adding the stresses about which I know into your stress bucket.”
“First,” he explained, “this is COVID stress,” and he went on to talk about how this plague has caused stress for everyone. He said it has created depressions, anxieties, and has divided families and broken other relationships. He asked her to tell him when to stop pouring COVID-19 stress into her bucket, but she just watched him pour it, intently.
Once the COVID stress cup was empty, she said as she wiped a solitary tear from her face, “I think you need to pour another cup of COVID stress into it.” So, he did.
He brought up her relationship struggles she had talked about in a previous session. Then, he picked up another large cup of water and said, “This is your relationship stress cup. Please tell me when to stop.”
Next was the financial stress cup, then the death one, the work one, the kids one, the parents one, the vehicle one, the social media one, the news one, the health one, and so on.
Each time, she let him pour much. A couple more times she had him empty the cups and add more for particular stresses.
In the middle of doing all this, the bucket started to fill. He explained how it’s normal to have a certain amount of stress in one’s life, but we have to proactively manage ourselves in order to keep ourselves at our best. He explained that the upper valve which was near the top and fed back into the bucket represented unhealthy ways to deal with stress, which feel like they relieve stress momentarily, but only make matters worse. This would be like drinking, smoking, gambling, drugging, lashing out at others or hurting oneself, etc.
He asked if she did any of those kinds of things to relieve stress. She said, “I just sleep a lot.”
As she said that, he opened the top spicket which allowed some water to go out and come back into the top. Her eyes welled up again.
He then asked if she did anything proactively which did help relieve stress sometimes.
She piped up with, “I like to take walks sometimes and when I do it helps.”
He opened the lower spicket and some water began to trickle down into the large canister. He asked her if she did other things to reduce stress.
She thought for a second and said, “Sometimes I’ll watch a relaxing movie.” He opened the spicket more and continued to add stress cups as he said what they represented. As the bucket filled, he asked her about other ways she relieved stress, opening the lower valve as she gave answers.
Ultimately, the bucket filled and overflowed onto the desk.
He, then, began to suggest new ways she could relieve stress, and opened the lower valve, incrementally, as he explained these new stress release ideas.
The bucket drained down to the relaxed level, even as he mentioned the counseling which was happening in that very moment. She cracked a little smile, and an unexpected, spontaneous laugh emerged, as she grabbed a tissue and wiped her eyes.
He said, “Now, I want you to imagine these other cups I won’t label. They could be mean people at work, taking their unhappiness out on you, or a new financial burden, or whatever. I’m going to get ready to pour them one at a time into your bucket. Imagine what it looks like when you pray, asking God to help you with particular life struggles. As you imagine God, stepping in to intervene — stepping in to mitigate these stressors… As you imagine God intervening, I want you to pretend you are an instrument of God, and go ahead and do something to intervene. Get ready, here comes the first stress cup.”
As he went to pour, he had to repeat, “Go ahead, intervene.”
She did. She reached up and kept him from pouring that unlabeled stress cup of water into her stress bucket. He then went on to try to pour other unlabeled stress cups of water into her stress bucket, and each time, she stopped him.
The water in the bucket remained at the relaxed level.
He said, “And that’s what God can do when you ask Him to help. He can even prevent overwhelming stress. Sometimes, He does this through divine intervention, but most of the time, He uses others. He just used a silly illustration of your stress bucket to show you how you can take action to relieve stress and how you can ask Him for help.”
The counseling sessions continued for a few weeks until she was fully equipped to manage stress in healthy ways on her own. She learned how to choose not to perceive stressors as stress, how not to dwell on things beyond her control, and how to live a life in such a way that she was no longer overwhelmed with stress.
He gave her wonderfully helpful passages in the Bible, like Colossians 3:2; Philippians 4:8; and Matthew 6:25-35. In case you’re wondering, part of her recovery also included prescribed medication for anxiety and depression, with coordinated counseling.
If you or someone you love is experiencing overwhelming stress or anxiety, please seek professional help. I recommend starting with your local church. If you don’t have one, find one. If you need help beyond what they can provide and you are in Thurston or Mason counties, or the Washington area, use this link https://www.tmbhaso.org/ to find the help you need. Otherwise seek mental health professionals in your area. As bad as it feels right now, it can get better. Others are standing by to assist.
Never forget, God is always eager to hear your prayers, and answer them.
Pastor Jeff Adams is a longtime community leader, victim advocate, counselor and chaplain. He ministers internationally, nationally and locally. His column appears online weekly and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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