The analogy of a bucket as a barometer of nervous system activation has been resonating with many clients lately. I primarily work with clients who are dealing with symptoms related to stress and anxiety who describe being overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions.  They know that meditation, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, exercise and other practices can help them manage symptoms, and they tell me that they find they aren’t able to use them.  They then also tend to add a layer of guilt and shame on top of the difficulties they’re already having and that only makes things worse.  

I spend a lot of time telling clients that when their nervous system is running on overdrive, they don’t actually have the capacity to use these tools.  It’s not that they’re not trying hard enough, it’s that they can’t.  When it feels internally like the gas pedal is floored and there is no brake on, the limbic system or emotional centre of the brain is running the show.  Cortisol is constantly pumping through the electrical (nervous) system and the frontal cortex, where our problem-solving capacity and executive function are, is mostly turned off.  People are stuck in the fight, flight, freeze response. 

Another way of thinking of this is in terms of a bucket.  If our nervous system is in balance, our emotional bucket may be a quarter or a third full but that still leaves lots of room.  We then have some extra capacity to deal with an emotional curveball coming our way or even just the day-to-day stresses that come up.  Our bucket gets more full, but it likely won’t get to the top and overflow. 

A man walking away from the viewer up a flight of stone stairs with a yoke over his shoulder carrying a red and a yellow bucket
Photo by 龔 月強

When our nervous system is out of balance, our bucket is nearly full before we even start the day, and it can take something very small for the bucket to fill to the top and spill over.  An overflowing bucket can look like heart palpitations, shallow breathing, tight joints or muscles, a panic attack, lack of focus, runaway thoughts, feeling angry, sad or overwhelmed and also feeling unable to reign in these symptoms.  It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that our nervous system bucket is overflowing and access to the tools that can help us manage has been cut off!   

NeurOptimal® sessions bring the nervous system back to the present moment again and again and over time, the level of activation or water in the bucket comes down.  As the nervous system comes more into balance, all the symptoms and issues listed above start to come down and access to the frontal cortex comes back on-line.  Clients start to notice that when negative or repetitive thoughts come up, they can more easily step back, acknowledge the thoughts and then choose whether to engage with them or let them go.  Clients also tell me that they can start meditating again, or they feel like getting out to an exercise class.  This is always great news as all the tools and practices I mentioned at the beginning are excellent ones to adopt to help the nervous system stay in balance and keep the bucket at a reasonable level.

Self Care Isn't Selfish written on a board with an out of focus plant in the foreground
Photo by Madison Inouye

So, when you check in, what level would you say that your bucket is at?  If you’re able to manage your responses to life’s daily stressors, your bucket is good.  If you’re finding that things that don’t usually bother you are starting to bring up irritation, that’s always an excellent barometer that your bucket is getting too full.  Then it’s time to get back to a practice or two that lowers the water level again, or, it’s a good time for a NeurOptimal® tune-up session. 

Make self-care your number one priority and keep your eye on your bucket!

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