You cannot find your keys and then your train into work is delayed. In the office, a faint drilling noise permeates the windows. You spill some of your coffee. A group chat you would rather not be in is pinging with what feels like millions of messages. A colleague is in a bad mood. Something is added to your to do list that you weren’t expecting. A breaking news alert pops up on your phone: another bad thing is happening in the world. You get home, and your children trail muddy shoes into the hallway. You go to bed feeling depleted.
No one really expects each day to go perfectly smoothly; minor stresses such as these are simply a fact of life. However, the build-up of these small moments of friction is not as insignificant as you might expect.
“On its own, each micro-stressor is something that we are typically well-resourced to manage,” says psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Amanda Macdonald. “However, because micro-stressors can pop up at any time, and we can come across any number of them in any day, they have the potential to send us into a state of irritability, exhaustion or stress.”
The problem with these micro-stressors is that their effects are cumulative. “With the first stressor – let’s say we can’t find car keys and are running late for work – our arousal levels increase and we feel anxious or stressed,” explains Mark Vahrmeyer, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy. “If we then find the keys, our arousal levels drop. However, unless we give ourselves sufficient time to recover from the experience, our arousal levels do not fully return to baseline.
“When we then encounter the next micro-stressor, it causes a faster and more intense response than the first and this then continues to accumulate with each micro stressor. We then can reach a point of overwhelm and can find ourselves unable to cope, upset, flustered and wondering why we are feeling like that over a spilt cup of coffee.”
Crucially, we shouldn’t brush them off so easily. “I’d argue that micro-stresses can be worse than regular stress if we are not aware of it,” says Olena Chechel, psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member. “Usually, when we experience big stress, we notice it and we are likely to have a toolbox of self-care strategies. But with micro-stress, it goes unnoticed in many instances. Our bodies may be experiencing stress and we may not be aware of it, until it is too late.”
“Science shows that micro-stresses have a tremendous impact on our physical and mental health,” she continues. “They are insidious and they grind us down because we do not treat them seriously.”
Four types of micro-stresses to watch out for
Anything that occurs which disrupts our day in even a minor way can be a micro-stressor, such as running late, losing and forgetting items, or things getting broken or spilt. “Inconveniences such as these can really cause us to feel stressed,” says Chechel.
A car alarm going off. Your flatmate constantly leaving dishes in the sink without cleaning them. The sound of sirens. A pile of rubbish in the corner of your workstation. “Our environments are important for our well-being,” Chechel. “If we are surrounded by mess, especially not of our own doing, or unwanted noise, we experience micro-stress.”
News alerts, emails, notifications, reminders, a barrage of strangers’ opinions and arguments as you scroll through social media platforms: there are countless ways technology can chip away at our sense of calm. “Opening our phones can be quite jarring for our nervous system,” says Chechel. “Many of us by virtue of a knee-jerk reaction reach for our phones first thing, which means starting the day off with stress.”
We all know what a trauma in life looks like: bereavement, abuse, life-changing accidents. But Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author of Tiny Traumas: When you don’t know what’s wrong, but nothing feels quite right, believes that we should also think about the smaller instances of trauma which all of us experience. “Examples of tiny traumas include challenging family dynamics, a betrayal, medical gaslighting or a breakdown of a friendship,” she says. “Or, it could be microaggressions at work, where a colleague constantly makes snide comments and undermines our efforts. Because tiny traumas are stigmatised as ‘not being serious enough’ we push them under the carpet until the bump is so large we trip, metaphorically.”
…and how to banish them
Learn to notice micro-stress
“By learning to notice how our body is feeling, and how we are reacting to both the big stuff and the small stuff, we develop an awareness of ourselves which helps us to self-regulate,” says Macdonald.
Deal with each one
Don’t just brush them off. “By giving ourselves time to recover from a stressor by taking some deep breaths, closing our eyes for a minute or two or walking the stress off, it can stop these micro-stressors accumulating throughout the day and will mean that it is less likely that we will become overwhelmed,” says Vahrmeyer. “If your corresponding emotional reaction to each stressor is attended to and you give yourself and your nervous system time to return to a calm baseline, the stressors will not accumulate throughout the day.”
Identify where you can reduce friction
Rather than going through life on autopilot, as so many of us do, take a moment to think about your daily routine and identify where you might be able to reduce the potential for aggravators. “There is often more that is easily adjusted than you might think,” says Chechel. “Maybe it’s as simple as: you don’t look at your emails right after you wake up.” Or, as Vahrmeyer says: “If we recognise that one of the most stressful experiences in the morning is hunting for our keys, then assign a fixed location for them and make a habit of checking before bed that they are where they are supposed to be.”
Change your language around stress
“Instead of minimizing your experience by using words like ‘kind of’ and ‘a bit’, start the practice of saying, ‘that was stressful’, ‘that was annoying’, ‘that was confusing’,” says Chechel. “Validate your experience and then ask yourself what it is that you need at that moment.”
If we are not well-rested, each micro-stressor feels a lot bigger than it is. “If we are not sleeping enough, or sleeping poorly, this adds an even bigger burden on our bodies,” says Chechel. “So, I recommend practising good sleep hygiene and maintaining a routine which includes leaving your phone outside of your bedroom at least two hours before bed.”