Micro-stresses – what are they?


Who can put their hand up and say their day has gone perfectly to plan so far? As I write this article, my shoulders are hunched, and I feel fidgety and unable to focus. My mind is whirring at 100mph, and my breathing isn’t far behind it. (I may have exaggerated a little there). That’s all due to the micro-stresses I suffered this morning before I’d even got in the car and driven to my destination. 

Not to bore you with the details, but an ‘accident’ on the floor from my cat, a spilt breakfast, a late milkman (no milk for my tea), the shower going from boiling hot and freezing cold for no reason and having to de-ice the car with a loyalty card due to a lost scraper meant I didn’t start my morning well. I know there are much more urgent and significant things going on in the world, and I have plenty of blessings to count (which I do regularly), but I can’t be alone when I say micro-stresses are causing me to be in a continuously drained state. 

What on earth are micro-stresses?

Micro-stresses are seemingly trivial things that become part of everyday adult life. Good examples are missing your train, getting stuck in traffic and forgetting to charge your phone. They may seem insignificant, but they occur so frequently that your brain and body end up being under constant strain. 

The effects of micro-stress

We tend only to address stress when critical things happen, such as losing a job or moving house, but micro-stresses need to be taken seriously because they weigh you down and burn you out.

The more stress we experience, the more likely we become upset, angry, anxious or even chronically ill. How many times have you become frustrated and overreacted at something minor? Chances are it wasn’t that incident that triggered the upset, but a series of minor occurrences leading up to it. The final one was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The effects of micro-stress on the body and brain can broadly be divided into three categories: physical, mental and behavioural. Below are a few of the more common stress indicators:

  • Physical symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, muscle tension or pain, digestive issues, pain in your chest or a faster heartbeat and sexual problems
  • Mental symptoms can include difficulty concentrating, struggling to make decisions, feeling constantly overwhelmed and worried, and becoming forgetful
  • Behavioural changes can include being irritable, changes to sleep patterns (either sleeping too much or too little), overeating or comfort eating unhealthy foods, losing your appetite, or drinking and/or smoking more

How to deal with micro-stress

Traditional stress-busting techniques don’t always do the trick for micro-stresses because they are unpredictable and often embedded into our days. However, here are a few ideas to try:

  • Don’t ignore micro-stressors They are harmful because we don’t recognise them to be an issue, but lots of small problems soon add up to one big problem which can take an enormous toll on your health and wellbeing. Dealing with them may have become routine, but life can be significantly better if you can make changes to avoid them
  • Step back and look at micro-stressors in a new perspective Start by identifying one or two of your most common micro-stressors. When you feel them heading your way, take time to distance yourself to decompress. Use that energy to do something more positive or vent if you need to
  • Nurture relationships that build your confidence, generate fun and fill your life with positivity Taking up a new hobby, for example, can mean you find a new sense of purpose and discover a world of people that can influence your life in a good way. Distance yourself from people that cause you stress, if and when you need to. Don’t feel bad about it! Ultimately, it’s up to you to control where you spend your time and energy. Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on sometimes, but don’t be afraid just to listen and advise rather than try to always solve problems for others. If you feel you’re unable to take on other people’s issues when you are drowning in your own or you’re feeling too stressed, tell them to make them aware. You’re not disconnecting or being a bad friend, simply setting some temporary boundaries. Remember, sometimes those we love the most can cause the most stress 
  • Try to avoid spreading yourself too thinly Ease pressure by learning to say no without worrying about offending anyone. I’ve always struggled with this, so shall we all make a pact to give it a try?
  • Express your feelings One of the causes of micro-stress can be unspoken tensions at home or at work. They can wear you down, create additional work or add to an already overfilled plate. Try explaining how issues or other people’s behaviour are affecting you. People may not be aware that change is needed
  • Switch off from social media With fake news, trolls and keyboard warriors, the world of social media can become a dark place. If you scroll through feeds out of habit but find it is having a negative effect on you, hit the unfollow button so that you only see updates that matter and step away from it when you feel overwhelmed. If you look on social media to find out how friends are or what they’re up to, how about dropping them a line and meeting up in person instead?

Stress can be positive too!

Until I began writing this article, it didn’t occur to me that positive stress also had a name. That name is eustress. Rather than causing negative stress, eustress enables growth in a constructive way. It’s the sort of stress we feel when we’re motivated to take on a challenge that we know we can do with the right mindset and a little encouragement. You just need to be careful that something that causes eustress doesn’t become impractical and a source of distress.

Give micro-stress the heave-ho

The effects of stress on mental and physical health are, rightly, becoming bigger and bigger news. With so many demands on our time, and smartphones and working from home creating the feeling that it’s impossible to escape work and relax, you can liken everyday life to a phone with apps constantly running; the battery will soon drain and need to be charged. 

Though micro-stressors form part of typical adult life, the positive impact can be significant if you can identify the patterns they appear in so that you can avoid them. It’s easier said than done but adjusting your routine and adopting new habits can help enormously. I just need to tell my naughty cat that so that he doesn’t – literally and figuratively – put his foot (paw) in it again.

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