Micro-stressors wreaking havoc on physical and mental health
The common micro-stressors that would wear on people every day have changed, writes Jennifer Moss
We recognize big stressors like the pandemic, massive weather events, countries at war — but research confirms that stress can also be cumulative. Described as "micro-stress" it's the everyday little stressors — like Zoom meetings that go too long, getting cut off in traffic, someone leaving the dishes in the sink beside the empty dishwasher, that weigh us down. Each one on their own can feel small but when they add up it can become overwhelming.
Add in a global pandemic and those micro-stressors are wreaking havoc on our physical and mental health. And researchers believe that the pervasive nature of micro-stress and how it just exists in the background, means we may be unaware of where our anxiety is coming from.
The main drivers of micro-stress
Researchers Rob Cross, Jean Singer, and Karen Dillon found 12 main drivers of micro-stressors and broke them down into three categories:
- First, the stresses that reduce your personal capacity which is the amount of time and energy that you have to manage your work and life.
- Then we have the stresses that reduce our emotional reserves — our emotional reserves are what allow us to manage our feelings, and keep calm under pressure.
- Finally — we experience micro-stresses when our identity or values are challenged - our values and identity are at the core of how we define who we are – so interactions or events that cause dissonance with our sense of values or identity can be very stressful.
Examples of these micro-stressors and how they show up in our lives can be found in the following ways:
- In the first category, micro-stresses that drain us in a personal capacity, can happen when our workload — at work and at home — increases without having control over it. For example at work — when people create more work for us, or restrict resources and training so we can't meet our goals, when we constantly have to deal with urgent versus priority needs, or when people don't deliver on their promises or miss deadlines. In our personal lives, micro-stressors in this category happen from constant interruptions, or when the people we cohabitate with aren't participating equally in the workload, or someone cuts us off on the road.
- In the second category, stresses that reduce our emotional reserves, we see it flare it when hearing or watching an upsetting story on the news, someone around us that is persistently negative, when a public figure passes away, or when we experience or witness an unkindness or an injustice being done to someone.
- Finally, in the third category, when our identity and values are being challenged, we experience that we feel under pressure to do something that is not consistent with our values, when a friendship distances without warning, or when a public figure we trust or someone in leadership behaves unpredictably or is acting outside of expected norms.
The increasing and changing micro-stressors
The common micro-stressors that would wear on people every day have changed. It used to be commuting and trying to accomplish all personal administrative tasks on the weekend, or having to physically interact with that frustrating person at the office. It was the dividing and conquering at home with kids needing to be in different places at different times.
Now we're experiencing different types of micro-stressors but they are equally — perhaps even more — stressful. Perhaps it's in part due to the fact that they are all sequestered to one area of our lives. For many — that's home. Particularly with micro-stresses that drain us in a personal capacity — we have increased unpaid labour — around 15 to 20 hours per week now along with increased workload. It's coming at us from all sides.
And of course, the pandemic — like it has in every other scenario within our lives – is playing a role. The pandemic is considered a macro-stress — and it's a major event that causes us to have to persistently engage with it. When we are dealing with a macro stressor like a pandemic or a natural disaster or a trauma, it can increase the risk of depression. These types of macro-stressors can negatively impact sleep, decrease motivation, decision-making is impaired. People start to feel fatigued — even exhausted.
You can then imagine that when some of the micro-stressors pop up we don't have the mental and emotional reserves to handle it as well as we would like. This can cause more arguments at home, increase road rage, more people are acting irrationally — like the number of incidents we're seeing on airlines. Our emotions are already elevated and then something that we would have normally absorbed in a more regulated way — has us behaving erratically and in some cases spinning out of control.
How can we better manage these micro-stressors?
First, recognize that this is happening. Identify what is stressing us out. Label it. Then, try to distance yourself from things causing you stress. And I am well aware that if stress is happening at home, we all can't just move away to a tiny island and escape all of these stressors, but perhaps it's taking manageable breaks like;
- Turn off the hard news.
- Shorten visits with family or friends that are persistently negative. You can still visit but don't stay as long.
- Increase self-care by practicing mindfulness. If we can give ourselves those emotional breaks — even ten minutes a day — we can better control our edit switch and react in moments of stress with a bit more calm.
- Change your expectations of yourself and others — couch everything in "we are in a pandemic."
For me — the house has been full and busy and the effort to keep it clean is enormously taxing. I am used to working from home alone and the last 20 months has definitely worn me out. I have had to let go of some of the expectations to do it all. As a high-performing person who likes things a certain way — that has been challenging. But, I also see the kids going back to school as a timeframe I can handle.
More importantly, we need to remind ourselves that not just the pandemic — but the length of this experience — is extremely unusual. Remaining mentally flexible helps and redefining expectations can help shape how we react in the moment. Even when it's hard and we're all tired of trying to rise above — the key to survival right now is more grace, increased self-compassion, and maybe a self-congratulatory pat on the back for getting this far.