The alarming impact of micro-stress and how to manage it

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Small stressors in people’s daily life could be harming their health just as much as major stressors like job loss or financial troubles. These seemingly insignificant stressors are called micro-stressors, and they can accumulate quickly, leaving people feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

What exactly is micro-stress?

The Harvard Business Review defines micro-stresses as small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own but accumulate over time, and are often hard to detect until a person is completely overwhelmed. Micro-stresses can come from any area of life, be it our loved ones, clients, colleagues, bosses, or any other leader that has an impact on our lives. Micro-stress often has a ripple effect, which means it can be contagious, whether in a household or a workplace, either making for a healthy, peaceful environment, or a toxic one.

Everyday life micro-stressors can easily go unnoticed because of how trivial they seem. Examples could include something as minor as not finding a parking spot near work right away, losing your keys, slow internet connection, traffic congestion, being exposed to negative news on social media or on TV, and even minor injuries like a papercut or a stubbed toe.

At a workplace, micro-stress could take slightly different forms but is just as present. It could come in the form of being interrupted or distracted frequently while trying to complete tasks, unclear expectations or conflicting priorities from different stakeholders, poor communication between manager and employee leading to frequent misunderstandings, or emails from managers after work hours, among other things.

A study from 1980 found that micro-stresses – then referred to as daily hassles – have a larger impact on health than most other major life events – which were previously used as the main way of assessing stress.

How is micro-stress different from macro-stress?

To better understand micro-stress,a deeper look at what macro-stress means is needed. Macro-stress is different in that it’s big life events, like the loss of a job or a loved one, moving to a new home, an illness, or a traffic accident. Micro-stress is all the stressors that aren’t life-changing on their own. Both types of stress, however, could have significant effects on us physically and mentally.

Rob Cross and Karen Dillon, writers of a book entitled “Micro-stress Effect” and who conducted in-depth research in that area, explain that the human body doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of stress. This means that macro and micro stressors could be equally as bad. “The thing about micro-stress is because we almost never recognize it’s happening, we don’t have the language to talk about it, solve it, or respond to it,” says Karen Dillon.

How to identify micro-stress

To deal with micro-stress or treat its impact, people have to first be able to spot it. “Micro-stress involves emotional baggage that’s not easy to unpack. That’s because the source of microstress is seldom a classic antagonist, such as a spectacularly demanding client or a jerk boss,” explains Rob Cross.

“Rather, it comes from the people with whom we are closest: our friends, family members, and colleagues. For example, we may harbor feelings of guilt or failure that we’ve let down someone we care about, or find ourselves in situations where we’re concerned for their well-being,” adds Cross.

To make that possible, expert Karen Dillon suggests putting micro-stressors into three categories, the first being stressors that drain a person’s capacity to get things done, such as an email from work that made an employee stay an extra 45 minutes at work and miss dinner with their family.

The second is micro-stressors that deplete one’s emotional reserves. “We all start our day with a certain amount of energy, then this little thing happens that drains our emotional reserves, or the ability to bounce back and be enthusiastic,” says Dillon.

“For example, you wake up late for work and you’re not being your best self with your spouse or kids. You probably leave the house not feeling alright. While your marriage or family relations aren’t falling apart, you don’t feel well, and you start off the day already feeling depleted, and this will only layer up more throughout the day,” Dillon adds

The third are micro-stressors that challenge one’s identity. “This is like people who feel that they need to be more aggressive at work. Perhaps be more aggressive managers or over-promise to deliver something they know they won’t just to close a sale. All of that ends up making them not feel good about themselves because it challenges their integrity, and that, in turn, can cause stress,” Dillon says

How to reduce micro-stress at work

“In the workplace, one common source of micro-stress is misaligned priorities. In the old days, you would work with the same group of people for a long time, and you got to know them pretty well. Now, we’re apt to collaborate on many different projects and teams, which means you might not know or trust your colleagues fully. You don’t know yet how much you can rely on them, so you work kind of defensively,” Fortune Well reports.

“One way to manage that lack of trust is by making an effort to improve communication. At a minimum, I’d recommend taking five minutes before a meeting ends to recap what was agreed and write it down on a white board or type it into an email that you send to everybody. Just being very clear—I’m going to do this by this date—can relieve some of the pressure,” the publication writes.

“Have discipline in your communication with others. Ask your manager/colleagues how high of a priority a task is if they assigned it to you. Ask good questions to minimize the chance of being misaligned at work,” Karen Dillon says.

Another way to reduce micro-stress in general is to reduce exposure to the source of the stress altogether by taking breaks from them, since eliminating them completely is impossible, according to CBC News wellbeing columnist Jennifer Moss. This could mean reducing the length of stressful family visits and controlling exposure to negative news.

The next time you experience stress, ask yourself whether the stressor is significant. If it is not, it is possible that micro-stressors are the underlying cause. To mitigate their impact, start identifying these stressors, adopt healthier coping mechanisms, and create appropriate boundaries by separating yourself from them in the moment. By doing so, you may be able to safeguard your health and well-being, and prevent the deleterious effects of micro-stress.

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