Sarah and Bekah, a primary school teacher and a clinical psychologist, formed a deep friendship over holding honest conversations around mental health. These conversations turned into a podcast, A Drop in the Bucket, in which they use the analogy of a stress bucket to speak with guests about what affects their mental health and what helps them to cope and feel well.
In the conversation below, Sarah and Bekah share their own experiences with mental health and their reflections on how we can best cope with the stresses of life.
On the podcast, you regularly speak with guests about their experiences with mental health, but what have been your own experiences?
SARAH: We complement each other quite well for the podcast, because Bekah has a lot of professional experience in this area, while mine is personal experience of anxiety and periods of depression. I also lived with my dad whilst he had depression for several years. The change I experienced since taking medication and having cognitive behavioural therapy – where I was given tools to work things through – highlighted how I hadn’t been dealing very well with it before and how much better I could deal with it now.
That was about five years ago, and since then I’ve learned that it is a continuous journey. I’ll have seasons of the year where it’s harder and seasons where it’s a bit easier, sometimes that’s life dependent and sometimes that’s literally seasonal, as I find the winter harder. Part of what I needed in order to deal with my mental ill health was to be open about it; the more I talked about it, the more I felt I could breathe. That’s part of how our friendship deepened, because Bekah also talked really openly about mental health, and those conversations became more frequent, more open and more complex, which led us to start the podcast.
BEKAH: I’m a clinical psychologist, and I had wanted to work in psychology since I was a teenager; my dad was training to be a Transactional Analysis Counselor at that time, and his initial training was as a Psychiatric Nurse, so there were a lot conversations going on about mental health. I got really interested on an intellectual level but I hadn’t had a period of mental ill health and I didn’t know anyone in my close family who had either. I reached the end of my doctorate feeling that while other people had personal experiences of mental health, mine was purely professional.
However, we don’t wait for big, dramatic things before we say that we’re physically unwell; we might say we’ve been unwell lately because we’ve had a cold. In that same way, I’m really passionate about people being able to talk about those times where they don’t feel mentally well, but that doesn’t mean that they are more severely mentally ill. One of the reasons that people don’t talk about their mental health is because we think that it’s got to be really bad before we’re allowed to talk about it, or we simply don’t have the language.
The openness with which I talk about it now and the importance that I place on this in my own life is not something that I had ever done before I trained. I saw people who I wanted to help as other: I am going to help you because you are struggling and you are different from me. The more I’ve done as a therapist, the more I’ve realised that while there are plenty of life experiences I’ve not had, we are a lot more similar than we are different. It isn’t about some people struggling and some people being the helpers; we all have mental health. Everyone has a story to tell about mental health. Some people don’t feel that their story is particularly noteworthy, but that doesn’t mean that your story isn’t important or that it shouldn’t be heard.
Part of what I needed in order to deal with my mental ill health was to be open about it; the more I talked about it, the more I felt I could breathe.
S: That’s what we’ve tried to do with the podcast. It’s not just about telling the stories of people with diagnosed mental health conditions, we really want to hear from everybody: what fills their bucket with stress, what that looks like for them and what helps to empty it. Nobody is going to listen to someone’s story and go, ‘That’s exactly like my story,’ but you’re still going to be able to learn something from it. We’ve had some really lovely feedback about people feeling like there are elements of their own story in different episodes, and that’s helped us realise there are elements of our stories in there as well.
Have you been surprised by what any of your guests have listed as filling their stress buckets?
B: Because of my training, there hasn’t been anything completely out of the blue, but there are definitely things that I don’t consider on a day-to-day basis because they don’t affect me. We had a wonderful girl called Emily on the podcast; she’s a graphic designer who does these beautiful illustrations for her Instagram page (@21andsensory), and she has diagnoses of autism, sensory processing disorder and dyslexia. She talked about being affected by a number of things that must happen around me all of the time – like certain noise levels – that are on such a little level that I’m not aware of them. It’s important to build that awareness, especially for the people in your life, and to make sure that the places you’re in are as friendly as possible for people with autism, dementia, or a processing disorder. That’s been the biggest challenge for me.
S: Sometimes we’ve learned things from each other. Bekah talks about how if she goes a few days without working out or physically moving her body, that’s a huge stress for her. I literally cannot imagine what that feels like; it stresses me if I have to work out! Equally, Bekah needs social interactions of some kind, and while I do to a certain extent, if I could have loads of evenings on my own watching TV I’d be very happy. If someone’s normal gets knocked off balance, that is very stressful, but if their normal is not the same as yours then it’s going to be quite hard to imagine how that feels.
How can people become more self-aware about what fills their buckets?
B: Sometimes you are going to be really struggling and you don’t know why, and that is ok. One of the most difficult things for the teenagers I work with is the feeling that if they tell their parents they’re not feeling ok, they’re going to be barraged with questions where they’ll have to justify or explain it. They really just need to know that they can tell someone they’re not ok and there will be nothing else asked of them; people will just sit with them.
When you feel like your bucket is filling up or has recently spilled over, it’s helpful to try to unpick what has been happening around you or to you over the last few days, weeks, months, and ask yourself: how long has this been building up? Write these things down and then you can come back and notice patterns. If you notice that the last six times your bucket overflowed, you’d had an argument with your mum, brother, or boyfriend, then you can identify that conflict might be quite difficult for you. Some people really notice being affected seasonally, or on a menstrual cycle. Our brains track things quite naturally, but they are so desperate to make meaning that they will just fill in gaps to provide a reason, and if we’re in an emotional place, then it’s not necessarily going to be based on any actual data or logic. That’s why it’s important to write things down and look back on it over time to build awareness.
Sometimes you are going to be really struggling and you don’t know why, and that is ok.
S: One of the things we ask our guests is: when do other people notice your bucket is filling up? Sometimes it’s really helpful to ask the close people in your life what they notice about when you get stressed. In one of our episodes, my mum explained that it’s best to do that when you’re in an okay place; ask someone to help you reflect back and find ways you can try to make that better together next time.
If you notice that someone is struggling with their mental health, but they haven’t come to you to ask for help, how would you approach that conversation?
S: It really depends on your relationship with that person, the kind of conversations you have and the authority that person has given you to speak into their life. Sometimes Bekah and I have had conversations where she’s said to me, ‘Well of course you always get stressed about this,’ and I go, ‘Oh yeah, of course!’ If you have the kind of relationship to be able to do that, then you probably don’t even think about the fact that you’re bringing something up. You also probably know the person well enough to gauge whether or not it’s the right time.
B: It’s all about how you do it. Are you going to give this person the message that you care and you’re there for them, or are they going to get the message that you’re fed up and they’re being a burden? What you say and how someone takes it are related but distinct; you can control one but not the other, so there’s a lot of weight on your relationship. Sometimes people will say things, it’s not going to feel like it was the right time, and it’s going to blow up. But it’s not just about that one moment, it is about the whole relationship and how you are going to be there afterwards.
Bethany and Jess spoke about this excellently when they both shared about their experiences of having eating disorders. One of the things that the anorexia did was make them really defensive and snappy and attacking of people around them for offering help. The most helpful thing was when those people around them didn’t go anywhere, when they said, ‘I see that this is because you’re not ok, and I’m going to stay with you.’ If you’re not going to be that person for someone, then you have to really think, why am I going to challenge them? Because if it’s just to make them change in order to make your life easier, then… shush.
S: Sometimes it just involves talking about mental health more openly without making it explicitly about the person; pointing them in the right direction of help. This might mean talking about your own experiences. I also know of a friend who felt that her husband needed some support, so she told him about our podcast and deliberately directed him to an episode that she felt was best linked to his story!
How might someone go about identifying the things that empty their bucket?
B: A question that’s really poignant and that you have to keep doing some work on yourself to answer, is: what do I need in order to feel ok? Because the absence of those things, or the feeling that they are threatened, is often going to be what fills up the bucket, while coming back to a sense of being ok in those areas is going to be what empties it. Sometimes it’s about what your normal routine looks like; for me, exercise is multidimensional, but a significant part of it is just the sense that I’m going to do something on a regular basis.
Increasingly as we’ve done this podcast, I’ve also realized it’s not about what you can do to empty your bucket, it’s about how you are going to do things: How are you talking to yourself? How are you giving yourself rest? How are you allowing yourself the things that bring you joy? And yes, that involves writing things down, journaling, talking to people in your life, having some therapy; because it is not a sit-down-and-work-it-out-in-one-go kind of self-exploration.
S: Some of it is about the balance of benefit versus cost. Things like therapy and growth work are going to cost you something, because it’s hard, but the benefit makes it worth doing. For example, if you have a bubble bath, but you just sit there and think about all the things you need to do, then it’s costing you more stress than it is actually benefitting you. There’s almost no point. Whereas, if you get a benefit from setting aside the time just for yourself, then even if it costs time in your routine, it’s still worth doing. Other things might also require effort to prioritise, and some of those are fundamental human things about time, movement and connection, like seeing friends, going for walks, being outside…
B: … books or crafts; losing yourself in something….
S: … so there are some common activities that may be beneficial, but as Bekah said, it’s less about the activities themselves and more about how you do them what they give you.
Things like therapy and growth work are going to cost you something, because it’s hard, but the benefit makes it worth doing.
B: If someone gave you what seems like a straight-forward tip, and you said, ‘I don’t think that’s for me,’ usually it’s going to be for one of two reasons: Either that’s genuinely not a helpful thing for you and you are just different from the person that’s given that advice, or there is something else getting in the way of you doing that fairly basic thing that you need to sort out. The number of people that I suggest to turn their phone off at least an hour before bed, and barely anybody does it! Now, that’s not something that is too hard for most people, and yet people come back to me – especially teenagers – with a barrage of excuses. If there is something that is fundamentally getting in the way of you doing that simple act of self-care, then tackle that.
Sometimes people dismiss the really basic things as being too basic. And yes, it’s not going to fix everything. Kate Lucey, who we had on the podcast, has written a brilliant book called, Get a Grip, Love, and every chapter is about a stupid, very simple bit of advice she’s been given, like: why don’t you just go for a run? Any one of those things in isolation is obviously not the whole story, but if you are struggling so much with doing any of those really simple things that are fundamentally important to you – eating regular meals, getting regular sleep, connecting with people – then there’s something going on underneath, and that’s where you have to tackle it, not just getting someone to follow the advice that you’re giving.
Over two years on from starting A Drop in the Bucket, what have been some of your favourite things about running the podcast?
S: The people. We love getting to know every guest we have on and we come away after spending an hour with them having always learned something and just going: that was fun! We also have a handful of people who have become incredibly good friends to us; it’s one of those things where we may have connected over our shared passion about mental health and then alongside that discovered we have similar sense of humour. At least two of those people I invited to my wedding – that’s how good friends we’ve become. We could never have predicted the depths of friendship that we would gain from this.
B: There isn’t a single person who’s been on our podcast that we wouldn’t help if they needed us, and there’s no one who’s come on that we wouldn’t champion wholeheartedly. We are so grateful to people for coming on and sharing their stories – and not everyone is super confident or practiced in it – but it is more than a gratitude, we genuinely love these people and have connected with them for those hours, and that is special.