The Hidden Power of Micro-stressors

Look at us, humankind. Only a couple of decades ago, we didn’t have mobile phones that could fit in our pockets. Today we can access the internet with them, pay the bills, share our moments with family and friends — all by touching a screen. We have evolved and we skyrocketed into a brand new way of living.

Although this evolution changed the world for the better and made our lives easier, it brought some challenges. Humankind became hyper-competitive, and this has constantly impacted on our daily lives, mentally and physically. This vicious cycle is a never-ending loop with no tendency towards balance. We slowly become stressed out on a daily basis.

While the majority of our stress is caused by work, there are some stresses that we’re not even aware of — but they are doing a pretty good job in thinning our nerves. These tricky things are commonly known as micro-stressors. They are a part of our everyday life — occurring somewhere between 20 to 30 times a day.

Now that I got your attention, you must wonder what these micro-stressors are, how they’re affecting you, and how you can get rid of them. There’s no easy way of saying this, but you nor I can get completely free of these little annoyers. They are a part of who we are, but we can learn how to mitigate them.

Birth of a child, going to college, marriage, divorce, moving away, death of a significant other — these are considered major life events and, therefore, not appraised as micro-stressors. These events, positive or negative, are highly likely to increase our sense of fear and precariousness, which will ultimately lead to stress. Although considered life-changing, researchers have found major life events are rarely major causes of stress because of their infrequent occurrences.

On the other hand, micro-stressors, because of their frequent occupancy, are considered the most aggressive when it comes to adults. The best definition of micro-stressors is that they are “things that rile us up without being considered big, life-changing moments.”

You missed a train or a bus. You are stuck in a traffic jam. You need to make a quick decision. You are speaking with an incredibly irritating person. These are all micro-stressors that cause us to nearly explode when we have a big dose of them. Even more so when they include conflicts with other people. What is interesting is that they have a unique impact on everybody and manifest in situations differently. For example, some people find it stressful being around guns; nevertheless, policemen do not.

These micro-stressors can be divided into three different conflicts that can cause stress:

  • The approach-approach conflict — when an individual needs to choose between two equally attractive options
  • The avoidance-avoidance conflict — when an individual needs to choose between two equally unattractive options
  • The approach-avoidance conflict — when an individual needs to choose whether or not to participate in something that has attractive and unattractive features

We consider micro-stressors as brief challenges when, in fact, they can have an impact on us for hours and sometimes days. They are impacting our liaisons, our business relationships, and even our communication with others.

For example, you feel stressed out because you failed to deliver a project on time. You come home, and you talk about this with your partner, feeling that this discussion might help you deal with your stress. A couple of hours later, you might feel at ease, but tomorrow when you come back to work, you will think about it all over again until the project is finished and delivered.

The next “stage” of these micro-stressors is “beating us up”.This is when we are more likely to judge ourselves, construct a feeling of unworthiness, and consider ourselves incapable. The more personal significance we implement into a certain micro-stressor, the more influence it has on us.

Although you may address these situations as not dangerous since they’re short-lived, a person exposed to a lot of different micro-stressors over the years can develop serious mental health issues. That’s the reason why we should try and avoid them, or in situations where we can’t avoid them, be acutely aware of them. For those inescapable micro-stressors, we need to find a way of dealing with the stress we have without allowing it to build up. We should practice mindfulness and remember that they are not there to stay for a long time. We should balance it out with equal amounts of positive feelings. Engage in activities that bring us happiness, self-care, and tranquility. We should also try and identify micro-stressors that we can avoid, such as constantly being late to work or losing our keys. It is time to start waking up earlier and placing keys on a spot where they will always be located. This will result in developing healthy and positive habits.

Stress is all about the context between an individual and their perception of a certain situation. Micro-stressors, as the most common type, are very real. We need to address and acknowledge them. We need to ensure that we do not allow them to slide by unnoticed. Humanity is already stressed enough! We should pay more attention to alleviating micro-stressors by recognizing their patterns and taking action.

Tatjana Lukic, Project Assistant at Bridgewater Labs



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