Why we sweat the small stuff in times of big stress
'There is no right way to feel right now' reminds CBC Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss
If you're finding that the little things are wearing you down right now, you're not alone.
Little stressors that we'd normally ignore are suddenly driving us up the wall. Maybe you feel overly frustrated because you can't get a haircut or run a simple errand, or homeschooling is proving to be harder than you thought. Maybe the noise in the house makes you want to scream in your pillow, "No more loud noises!"
This is all normal.
But there are some emotional tools we can lean on to better handle the small stuff while mentally battling the big stuff.
The science of 'small' stress
Famously, we've been encouraged for years not to sweat the small stuff. But what if I told you — it's not that easy? Our nervous system isn't very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. Our body can react to the everyday stresses just as strongly as to a true life-or-death situation, like what we are dealing with now during COVID-19.
And the more our emergency stress system is activated, the easier it is to trigger and the harder it is to shut off.
The most dangerous thing about stress is that we normalize it. We don't notice how much it's affecting us, but it shows up in our everyday actions and behaviours.
Perhaps the most impactful outcome of stress is poor sleep. One major study found that after just 17 hours without sleep, our alertness is similar to the effects of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, which is considered "impaired" if you were operating a car in Ontario.
Lack of sleep also impacts our ability to problem solve, we are more forgetful and less coordinated, our coping skills are diminished. So here we are, dealing with this major stress of a global pandemic, and now we can't figure out how to run a videoconference call, we're bumping into stuff all the time, we're forgetting where we put our wallet or keys, we're way more irritable.
All of that comes out as sweating the small stuff, but it's actually just a by-product of being overwhelmed emotionally and physically by the big stress.
Resetting a new normal
There was a recent story about a manager who, leading a videoconferencing call, accidentally switched on the filters. She didn't know how to turn it off, so she just led the entire meeting as a potato.
She and her team were so good-humoured about it, but these moments of levity can turn to frustration when we haven't slept or feel consistently stressed out. It causes our reactions to be volatile and inconsistent. They can make us laugh or they can make us cry. Add that to our new lack of routine and learning how to work from home for the first time, and it's a recipe for an overreaction.
Do we need a routine right now? My answer is yes, but with some caveats.
Many people have shared with me anecdotally that they appreciate this new freedom from their previously overly-curated lives — this has helped them reset their priorities. But they've also shared that some semblance of routine is helpful to keep their worrying minds at ease.
I feel similarly. As a working parent of three kids, our old normal consisted of always being in the car driving somewhere/everywhere. But that routine was the normal we knew — it grounded us.
Right now, people are feeling adrift. A lack of routine can reduce our motivation to engage in healthy behaviours like exercising, eating well, but during the pandemic — even standard routines are hard to keep up. Pre-Covid-19 we had regular work hours, we had to get kids to school, we had to get out of bed, get dressed, start the day. Today, there are no real expectations to do that.
That can cause a ton of anxiety for people who suffer from depression or anxiety or other mood disorders — a lifestyle that can create a trap for deeper anxiety/depression.
Some normalcy, some transparency
I would suggest that every day we set a time to get up, shower, get dressed, make our bed, start the day. All of that will help mitigate our anxiety. But, does it need to be scheduled hour-by-hour? Not necessarily.
For some families that really works, especially for children that require heavy structure and/or for working parents who need a tight schedule so they can work. But for most families, setting a flexible routine is healthy. Do you need the kids to watch a movie this morning because both parents are in back-to-back meetings — don't feel badly about it — this is life during COVID-19. But, should you communicate to each other how the day is going to play out so there is a semblance of control in the midst of chaos — yes.
What we all need to do right now is recognize — and most importantly — label when we are feeling out of control, when we haven't slept well and feel tired, when we seem to be irritated with no clear reason why. In that moment, state it out loud. Tell yourself it's ok to be overwhelmed and just accept that today may be harder than yesterday.
Do the small things that make you happy; for me, I make a cup of tea and just quiet my mind for a few minutes. Or, I hug my kids and try to remember that I am not frustrated with them, I am mad at the stress of the world, and self-isolation and missing my friends and my mom and dad.
I also suggest that you share it with the people around you. For example, say "sorry, if my words don't come out right today, I'm a bit distracted because...," or "I don't mean to be short today, I feel irritable because…," that helps everyone around you empathize. We are all in this together and therefore, we are feeling in this together. Everyone will get it.
When you say these statements aloud, it also helps people to react appropriately to you. They meet your stress with calm which helps to deescalate a potentially unhealthy communication. Workplaces can communicate to their staff to use this type of language with their coworkers, their boss or their employees. It's not a "get out of jail free" card for being a jerk but it is a great way to alleviate some of the pressure on ourselves for our imperfect behaviours.
Finally, don't feel bad if you need to scream into the pillow of your newly made bed for a few minutes — do that too. It's ok. Use this mantra, it's working for me these days:
"There is no right way to feel right now."
If we can empathize with others and show ourselves some self-compassion, we'll be able to sweat the small stuff for a minute without guilt, then move on.