Dr. Barlevy's* Stress Theory

For many years now, I've shared an analogy with my clients (I love analogies!) It's what I call my "water pitcher theory of stress." At my daughter's suggestion to "write about stress", I've decided to share this theory with you.

I believe that when we are born, we're like an empty water pitcher. Some of us have a really big pitcher, some of us have smaller pitchers. Immediately, we're thrust under a faucet. The faucet has a very slow leak. So, for the first several years, assuming nothing truly traumatic happens, we have a drip falling into the water pitcher every few days or maybe once a week. Over time, we continue to collect these drips. As we age, the leak gets a little worse. Now we're putting in a few drops a day perhaps. When we get into elementary school, maybe its even higher--several drops a day. Now we have tests and friends and all the while, the leak worsens. 

If you are a child that suffered any  kind of trauma, be it abuse, a messy divorce, a death in the family, moving, addictions, illness... anything at all, that leak is going to be worse than a child with a "normal" upbringing. Because all of our pitchers are different sizes and shapes, though, it is impossible to tell how much is "too much" just by looking at the stressful events.

So we continue on through life and the leak continues to get worse. Sometimes, it even feels like someone is turning that faucet on--the water is really filling up! What happens if we never take any water out of that water pitcher? Obviously at some point, our water pitcher is going to overflow and potentially cause a big mess.

So, it is imperative that we each, every day, do one or more things to reduce the amount of water in our water pitcher to prevent the inevitable overflow. If we can do stress-relieving activities everyday, we'll lower the level just a bit--hopefully faster than we're putting water into our pitcher. 

What are some ways to reduce the level of water in our pitcher? Some of our activities are going to reduce the water level more than others. Here's a few ways to do that:

    Abdominal breathing



    Mindfulness activities




    Reframing negative experiences into a more positive light

    Doing activities that we enjoy

    Spending time with those we love and being present

There are many more but these are the first ones that come to mind. I was just thinking about last month's skill of the month--building mastery. To continue our analogy of a water pitcher, building mastery would be kind of like stretching the water pitcher so it holds a bit more. 

Now, the spilling over of the water that occurs when we don't reduce the level you could think about as a panic attack or a "breakdown". That's not to say, however, that people can completely prevent having some spillage at some point. Hopefully it is minimized but, unless you're a Buddhist monk or some other highly skilled individual, you're probably going to have a mess to clean up eventually. The good news is that it's just water. Its not the end of the world if you spill. The bigger the spill the longer it may take to clean up but its always possible to move on--even if you're never able to clean up all of your mess! 

Why can't we just fix the leak already?! I'm afraid, in this theory, to "fix the leak" would be not to exist. We have to have some bit of stress and, yes, even anxiety in order to function. If you didn't worry about starving to death, you may never eat. If you didn't worry about drowning, you might jump into a swimming pool without any thought of how to swim or survive underwater. Without a fear of failing, you may never pass a test (or study, or do homework, etc.). If you didn't fear that you would loose your job, you may never go to work. So some stress is necessary. Our lives these days, provide an abundance of stressful situations, though. Hopefully you can avoid some stress (perhaps by changing the way you think about stressful situations) but for the rest of it, the unavoidable, there are things you can do to at least lower the level in your individual water pitcher.

So I will again encourage each of you as I encourage myself--do something enjoyable and stress-reducing for yourself today and every day, especially as we continue through this highly stressful time of year.


*In the last year or so, I ran across a book which contained a similar theory but they used a "bucket" which is far less elegant than a "pitcher". Even though I've not published my theory, I'm still claiming it as mine as I have been using it for at least 16 years. :)