Activity Scheduling and Stress Buckets

I’ve been busy lately. My current uni subject is coming to an end, and I’m also preparing for placement. I’m also balancing extra-curricular projects like MIV and LaTUCS. Not to mention going back to my hometown for work and finding time to actually relax, to spend time with my friends or boyfriend or just do personal projects for myself.

My OT course is helping, by giving me tools to explain how I feel/do things (we call these explanatory models), even as it’s stressful at times. There are life lessons I’m learning.

Like, remember to set realistic plans for the day. I might want to get something done in one day, but realistically it might take one and a half days study, or two. Case in point: last week’s assignment was more challenging to wrap my head around than I realised – giving myself a strict time pressure/deadline wasn’t helpful. I ended up feeling quite stressed. But I used my resources – I emailed my subject coordinator, knowing from past experience she’d know what to say to put my study into perspective. As well, my boyfriend came over for dinner, before we went out to a choir workshop we’d been invited to (that was the deadline). Talking things through with and being close to him really helped. It’s the little things.

I need to remember that as an overachiever (remember the impostor syndrome realisation?), given that humans have an inbuilt “negativity bias”, I’m going to be harsher on myself for not getting x, y, or z done in the time I like – even if overall I’m still travelling well. Case in point: this week’s study for the exam. I had wanted to get “this much” done yesterday, but was hampered by a bit of a slow start and felt pressured. I couldn’t seem to get going as much as I liked to, until late in the afternoon. I did manage to feel happy with the day’s work, in part because when I got into the groove I let myself go an extra hour because things were flowing, instead of stopping work at 17:00. Later that evening after chatting over Facebook with a few fellow students, I realised that my version of “not enough done today” was quite possibly different to theirs (we’ll see – we’re catching up after class today to study together).

In occupational therapy, we’ve learnt about several different models and ways of improving a person’s occupational performance and mental health. Some of these are commonsense approaches that OTs or other professionals have put a name to, or formalised.

Like the concept of Activity Scheduling, where you schedule your day so that important things get done as well as fun things. I use Google Calendar for this and have been doing so since high school. I didn’t know there was a name for it until recently though! Activity scheduling (called a “time grid” in the third principle of this article, which talks about other related stuff) can be used in a general organisational context (as just noted) or a more specific therapeutic context. For example, if someone is depressed, scheduling activities can help get things done. This is of course done in a graded manner – i.e. start off with one little thing, then build it up. More information can be found about it here. If you’re interested in it for that regard, talk about it with a trusted health professional.

Another concept is the model called, “Stress-Vulnerability Model”, first developed by Zubin and Spring (1977). It’s a model that uses symbols of a bucket/tank, rocks/etc., water and holes/taps to explain how each person has individual stress levels that are influenced by different factors – vulnerabilities, stressors and protective ones. People with more vulnerabilities generally have smaller “stress buckets”, because their vulnerabilities fill up the bucket first. When a person can’t manage their stressors, or doesn’t have enough protective resources, their stress bucket will overflow. That overflowing can mean different things for different people, but generally results in some sort of crisis – whether that be a relapse or increase in illness severity, or “just” an emotional outburst of tears or anger. Learning what one’s vulnerabilities, stressors and protective factors are can be useful, as a person can then learn how to manage those factors.

A visual description of the Stress-Vulnerability Model is below. For more information, see here (original model publication, rather wordy) and here (simpler explanation).

Very rough visual representation of the stress-vulnerability model. Stressors shown as raincloud over tank, protective factors are a tap on the tank, vulnerabilities are rocks in tank. Level of water in tank indicates level of stress.

Stress-Vulnerability link http://www.mhpod.gov.au/assets/sample_topics/combined/Risk_and_protective_factors/risk_objective_2/index.html

Meditation exercise link – smiling mind app https://smilingmind.com.au/

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