Stress Buckets and Polar Bears – A Brain Health Discussion with Gin Lalli
Who is Gin Lalli?
Gurjinder ‘Gin’ Lalli, is a Psychotherapist and Clinical Hypnotherapist providing ‘Solution Focussed Therapy’ to businesses and clients.
The Edinburgh-based therapist has been working in stress and anxiety management and elimination for almost five years. Before that, she became fascinated with stress and how other facets of the mind work when she was an optician and would have patients with telling signs of conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes in the back of their eyes and would also have stories of stress.
She was particularly fascinated with those who could manage their stress well as everyone struggles with stress and anxiety from time to time, whether that is illness, bereavement, or financial worries. With thought processes the likely key to why different people had different levels of success with their own stress management, she moved into the field of psychotherapy and hypnotherapy to help clients help themselves.
She uses solution focussed therapy as her treatment for stress and anxiety related conditions. Specialising in mental wellbeing, she looks at ways to keep the brain healthy.
In her work, Gin discusses sleep as the main treatment to alleviate stress and anxieties. She uses the ‘Stress Bucket’ as a metaphor for the part of the brain that is closely associated with the hippocampus.
She describes the process as;
“The hippocampus is the filing cabinet of the brain, storing all your learned behaviour and thought patterns. However, before any files get stored and filed away in there, we need to sort through them. We need to check if they are useful files, such as the skills we have learned to drive or ride a bike. And if they’re something like a traffic jam you were stuck in or a crisp packet blowing in the wind, we can just forget about them as irrelevant and free up space. And this is where the stress bucket comes in. Whenever you have a particularly negative thought that you experienced during a time of stress, it gets stored in your stress bucket for a bit. And when you go to sleep at night, during your REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, you start to sift through those negative thoughts and begin processing them. If the thoughts were good learning experiences, then they can be stored as a useful file in your hippocampus, something to be referred to at a later date. If it is an irrelevant negative thought that is of no real value, then it is discarded.”
The metaphor is a great visual aid that is easily understandable for patients to understand what their brain is doing and what they need to do, and it also opens up the conversation around mental health.
Gin also wants to open up the conversation around commonly used phrases like ‘mental health’. She says there are not just stigmas around the topics discussed under mental health, but also with the phrase itself and would suggest reframing the discussion under new phrases such as ‘brain health’ and ‘mental fitness’ to further destigmatise the discussion area
What is the Stress Bucket?
The stress bucket is a metaphor I use, and I didn't set out to do that. It's part of the way I talk about stress is that there's a stress bucket and it fills up with stress.
When I started talking about stress buckets in my book and in talks, people hooked onto the phrase, stress bucket. It's a good visual aid, it makes us think of stress as this bucket we're carrying around that's part of us, and it opened up the conversation so much more as well and that's what I loved about it.
How do you empty that stress bucket?
My stress bucket is a metaphor for part of the brain where we start to store stress. However, there's a process of emptying that stress bucket in our sleep.
I strongly believe we have over complicated mental health. All we need to do is; if we get a little bit more sleep, if we started doing all things like, more positive activity, more positive interactions, we will limit what goes into the stress bucket in the first place, and we have inbuilt mechanisms to empty it as well.
Is sleep the reset factor for the brain?
It's a big one, but it's not the only one. The reason I talk about sleep a lot is to encourage people who don't need therapy and who don't need to spend a lot of money that this is something we already do. Our brain is designed to do this and once you understand the science behind how the brain works, you will understand that we have everything up here, it’s just that some people don't cope with stress and some people do.
The people that cope with stress know that they need to sleep well, eat well, move well, it's all of those. I haven't got the latest hack for you. I've got these really boring things that you already knew, and I think once we understand the science of sleep, sleep is a big factor but not the only one. We might not do it properly, but we do know how to do it and that is the easiest way to empty your stress bucket.
Why aren't we doing it more?
I do think that we're having more of a mental health crisis because we've taught ourselves how not to sleep. We've got social media, we've got 24-hour news and video games, and our email inbox can go off at any time on our mobile phones. We are sleeping less and if we all got half an hour more sleep, by that I mean good quality sleep, we'd see a difference in people's anxiety levels, stress levels and depression levels. We would see a huge difference.
What other factors can fill and empty the bucket?
We can limit what goes into our bucket with good sleep. There's another concept I talk about called the three P’s. Which is:
- Positive activity
- Positive interactions
- Positive thinking
I will say I'm not a fan of positive thinking as that phrase is very flippant because you know that you have to positively think, but if someone's depressed, telling them to think positively is not easy, because that's not how the brain works, and I could elaborate on that a lot in sessions.
I also believe that we don't need to talk about our problems of the past to feel better in our future, we've all got a past, and we've all got something that's happened. But if you're reading this now, you've survived. So, where are you now? And what do you want going forward? That's the other concept around therapy that I don't like that you need to dig over your past, it is draining, it is painful, and it doesn't have to be like that. There are ways to go forward. There are lots of people that do things like life coaching, and for me, solution focused therapy is better. We're looking at solutions going forward and there are lots of things you can do, there are no hacks, you know how to do these things.
Making sure you've got good gut health is really important, because your gut is connected to your brain, getting fresh air is really important and avoid being dehydrated too, our brain functions less even if it's only 1% dehydrated. These are the physical starting points for stress management.
It's going back to understanding brain function and that is the basis of all my therapy, getting people to understand where this fight or flight or freeze response comes from. I'm very passionate about saying that, if you've ever felt anxious, angry, or depressed; congratulations, your brain's working just fine! You've gone into a survival mode. We've always done it for millennia, it's just that now we know that it has gone into a survival mode because it feels threatened like there's a polar bear, however there's no real polar bears there, but we started imagining our polar bears now. We've got other stresses that are not as life-threatening, but they can feel like that sometimes.
How do we reframe the mental health discussion?
There is stigma around the phrase ‘mental health’, if we change the language a bit, that could make a huge difference. It’s something I've been thinking about quite recently. Brain health and mental fitness are some examples of just changing words to make it sound so much easier to talk about. If I can do that in an order that organisation I'm really pleased if I've opened up the conversation at least.
Gin also discusses anxiety management. What are some examples of anxiety coping mechanisms?
You don't have to manage anxiety. You can eliminate anxiety. That's another phrase a lot of people use a lot and use when they come and see me about how to manage anxiety.
A normal amount of anxiety is acceptable. Being anxious on a call or doing a big presentation because you wanted to do a good job, that's normal. People have gotten confused about what normal levels of anxiety are and what are not. An anxiety attack is absolutely debilitating, and it can take you over completely and it's about understanding why that's happening. Stop fuelling that stress by continuing thinking negatively and catastrophising.
We've got to create a shift to the positive part of the brain. That's where think positive comes in. It is a vague phrase that we use, but I mean we should talk about what's been good about your week. You can tell me about the stresses and strains you've had this week, but why don't you spend five minutes telling me what's been good this week as well and I guarantee you'll start feeling better.
That is the easiest way to think positive, so we need to change our mindset, around anxiety and understand that anxiety is a normal part of life in certain situations, but it shouldn't be debilitating. If it's debilitating, we need to try and overcome that as well.
How can people at work cope with the stress and anxiety?
At work, it comes from the top first of all. Leaders, line managers, those kinds of people, they need to start talking about it more. We need to start checking in with our people to say, ‘how are you?’, ‘How are things?’. Making sure that, you know, people are switching off. Are you still emailing them at 10 o'clock at night? Because if you are, couldn’t it wait until the morning? If you do want to email them at 10 o'clock at night, try putting some sort of caveat at the end of your email saying, ‘I'm sending this at 10 o'clock at night, but you don't have to answer’. We can also schedule the send time and that's really easy, we've got technology to help us with that and nothing is ever that urgent that you need to be sending emails at that time.
A clear boundary between when you are doing your work, and when you're having your home life and making sure we treat people like people.
For example, I've heard stories of people where they said, ‘what will really help me is if I can leave 15 minutes early to go and pick up my kids and I'm looking after my aging parent’ - and that is stressing them out. If they could leave 15 minutes early, it would make a huge difference to their wellbeing. Sometimes they've often offered to come in 15 minutes earlier or work 15 minutes extra. They're not saying that, but when people are refused these really small things, something's not right. I've had people being refused that stating, ‘we always finish at 5:30 so you're going to have to stay till then’.
We're not treating people as human beings and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that. If your business involves people, then you should have some compassion of working with people and all of the stresses that life brings us. We've all got them, and no one can work like a machine.
That's where you've got to have buy-in from the top. Often the companies where I'm most successful and I go down really well is when, especially on a webinar, the host of that talk is the CEO and that's when I know that this company is buying into this mental wellbeing and fitness, and they care about their team because they're attending and they're hosting and they're raising questions as well and opening up the discussion.
Listen to Gin’s Stress Bucket Solutions podcast