By Anja van den Berg
Losing a loved one, changing jobs, moving to a new house – these are all unmistakably stressful events that we’d expect to derail our emotions. Self-care and empathy from others often resolve, or at least lighten, these stressors.
Then there is long-term stress: an intense job with continuous deadlines to meet, a relationship that’s unsatisfying, or constant money worries. Some soul-searching and a deliberate choice to make changes go a long way to resolve long-term stressors.
But what about the smaller, everyday moments of stress we’re encountering? Are we truly aware of how those might be affecting us?
Stress comes to all of us in small little attacks throughout our day in what Professor Rob Cross, coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks, and his academic team call “microstresses.” And it’s coming from sources you may never have considered.
If we look at it in isolation, microstress are minor irritations. Yet, when accumulated, they can have a significant impact on our psychological health.
Researchers Allen D Kanner, James C Coyne, Catherine Schaefer and Richard S Lazarus attribute this impact to two factors: self-judgement and a lack of external empathy.
When you experience a significant stressful live event, your colleagues and loved ones support you. But when you lose your keys, you’re late for a meeting, or your child spills his lunch, people aren’t sympathetic. Moreover, you’re more likely to judge yourself harshly for these “mistakes” – you’re clumsy, you’re not punctual, you’re weak.
Microstress range from personal inconveniences like forgetting an important birthday to chronic interpersonal hiccups at work. Examples here include unpredictable behaviour from a person in a position of authority and pressure to pursue goals out of sync with your personal values.
A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that microstress have more of an impact on psychological symptoms than major life events.
“The problem is that most of us have come to accept microstress as just a normal part of a day,” Cross explains. “We hardly acknowledge them, but cumulatively they are wearing us down.”
Moreover, traditional advice on coping with stress isn’t useful because microstress are deeply – and invisibly – embedded in our lives. So, what can you do?
Cross’ team’s work shows three promising approaches:
Hit the pause button
When you feel agitation starting to build, take decisive steps to decompress — hit the pause button, close the laptop, and undertake an activity that is self-affirming and absorbing. Our stressors often look different after we’ve had a chance to distance ourselves from the clamour of anxiety or defensiveness.
Isolate and act on two to three microstressors
Next, identify two to three of the most prominent microstressors that are frustrating you at that moment. Drill down to figure out why these stressors are having this effect on you. Talk to trusted people in your network to help you unpack what’s really bothering you, or to reframe your stressors in a different light. A new perspective might help you to take direct aim at the source of the stressor, for example, by pushing back on unreasonable demands or dysfunctional behaviour, or by strengthening the network of people who can help buffer us from negative interactions.
Distance or disconnect from stress-creating people or activities
We can become intertwined, both personally and professionally, with people who routinely leave us feeling emotionally depleted. Take a step back and evaluate the relationships in your life over which you have control — and try to create some distance in the ones that create more stress than joy. Cross says that stress-creating relationships are not just negative or toxic ones. They can be people that we enjoy spending time with, but that enable unproductive behaviour (“Come on, you can finish the project tomorrow, let’s check out that new restaurant tonight!). Or they can be those who routinely leave us stranded with work because they haven’t come through on what they promised (“I didn’t finish the report, let me give you my notes, and you can take it from here…”).
Microstress is routinely part of our day and we hardly stop to consider how it is affecting us, but it accumulates. It may arise as momentary challenge, but the impact of dealing with it can linger for hours or days.
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/07/dont-let-micro-stresses-burn-you-out
Journal of Behavioural Medicine: https://webs.wofford.edu/boppkl/courseFiles/Psy150/Labs/SocialLab/Kanner81_Hassles%20and%20Uplifts.pdf