From the Magazine

How ‘Micro-Stressors’ Are Sabotaging Your Health — And What to do About It

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You’re about to leave the house to meet a friend at a restaurant you’ve both been dying to try. Wallet? Check. Phone? Check. Keys? Not so much. When you finally find them, a detour stops you in your tracks.

Increasingly frustrated, you pull up your GPS, only to discover your smartphone is throwing a tech tantrum and won’t cooperate. While each of these challenges may not be a big deal on its own, they soon pile up, causing a cumulative effect that’s enough to make you scream — at least on the inside.

“These day-to-day aggravations are known as micro-stressors,” reveals psychologist Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha, PhD. “Everything from constant deadlines to making what seems like a million decisions a day can create a chronic state of ‘red alert.’ In fact, more than one-third of women rate their daily stress level an eight out of 10, and studies show we tend to internalize these stressors more than men, often developing headaches and losing sleep.” 

As soon as you think, I don’t have what it takes to deal with this, a microstressor turns into a major obstacle, adds psychologist Erin Olivo, PhD, author of Wise Mind Living ($15.95, Amazon). The good news? “By reframing these challenges and reminding yourself that, yes, you do have the tools to overcome them, you can increase your self-efficacy, calming your mind and regaining control.” Read on for the study-backed tactics that will help you cut the most common micro-stressors down to size by tapping your deep reservoirs of resilience.

Rude People

You’re about to order your favorite frothy cuppa at your local coffee shop when a woman cuts in front of you, making you feel invisible — and more than a bit peeved. “It’s really hard not to let rude behavior get to us,” acknowledges Olivo. “Because we can’t help but take them personally, these perceived slights can take a disproportionately huge toll on our state of mind, tanking our mood for the rest of the day.”

The Rx: Consider their backstory. 

When folks seem rude, our brain goes into “us vs. them” mode, notes Olivo, who says the best way to prevent this micro-stressor from turning into macro-anger is by making the other person more relatable by picturing her story. “So if a woman cuts ahead of you, tell yourself, She’s running late for a new job and is so anxious, she doesn’t realize,” says Olivo. A new narrative puts their behavior in perspective, so you feel more at peace.”

Juggling To-Do’s

You prioritize, organize and delegate like a champ, yet you still feel like the walls are closing in as your boss gives you yet another assignment due…yesterday! “The pressure of work responsibilities triggers a mini version of the fight-or-flight response, causing tunnel vision,” says Olivo. “And when your brain is on the lookout for ‘danger,’ it makes it hard to tap into the creativity you need to do your best work.

The Rx: Put anxious thoughts ‘on ice.’

How to make deadlines seem not so dead-ly? “Take a few deep breaths, concentrating on a longer exhale to initiate the relaxation response,” urges Olivo. “Slowing down helps you tackle one task at a time.” 

If you’re still overwhelmed, consider grabbing frozen peas! “Placing the cold bag on your forehead triggers the ‘diving reflex,’ which lowers your heart rate. In fact, my patients prone to panic attacks carry breakable ice packs in their purses!”

Everyday Decisions

What should I wear? Where should I go for dinner? When should I do laundry? The drumbeat of daily decisions goes on and on. “Studies show we make about 35,000 decisions a day,” confirms psychologist Melanie Greenberg, PhD, author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “Those little choices can soon overload your brain until it’s hard to make bigger decisions because you’re so used to second-guessing yourself.”

The Rx: Tap into your intuition.

Rooted in past experience, intuition draws upon our subconscious, helping us make decisions faster. To enhance yours, practice mindfulness, advises Greenberg. “Simply focus on the present moment, watching your thoughts bubble up and letting them go without judgment,” she explains. “This helps you let go of perfectionism and the idea that if you make the wrong choice, you’re somehow defective, while building trust in yourself.”

Tech Overload

Your smartphone prods you to press “update.” Naturally, you oblige, only to realize this seemingly innocent click has caused your recent photos to disappear, sending you into a technology-induced stress spiral. 

McConatha explains, “Whether you’re frustrated by a glitch or are trying to master a new generation of gadgetry — which seems to be born every minute — smartphones, tablets, computers, and more have become like another appendage we continuously rely on, so any setback sends our anxiety skyrocketing.”

The Rx: Draw on your inner child.

Turning off your phone for a few hours or paring how often you check email to about three times daily slashes anxiety significantly, says McConatha. 

And if you’re worried about adapting to new tech? Just tap into “beginner’s mind” by asking yourself how a child would approach learning something new. “Would she openly ask questions without being self-conscious? Would she ‘play’ and experiment with devices? Looking at technology that once intimidated you as something you can adapt to helps you see your ability to adjust to all kinds of new situations — and shrink stressors.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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