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How tiny daily frustrations can add up to bigger problems

Everyone has microstress, but if left unchecked, it can build and affect mental and physical health.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Life is filled with everyday annoyances. Maybe you wake up and stub your toe. Your teen still refuses to pick their clothes up off the bathroom floor. You lost your keys, again. And now, you’re stuck in traffic, because all those little things made you late.

That’s microstress: tiny daily annoyances, frustrations and worries that can pile on to become a bigger problem.

The impact, however, goes much deeper than being late for work. Microstress can affect people's mental and physical well-being.

“Their impact over time stacks up and they sort of push us closer to our emotional or mental limits. It's kind of that death by 1,000 cuts,” said Dr. Daniel Meltzer, the executive medical director for Regence.

Microstressors are different for everyone. It could be as simple as unanswered emails, incomplete to-do lists, disagreements or criticism. Essentially, it could be any everyday hassle, frustration or irritation. Sometimes they can be so small that people barely even notice them, but they builds until people reach a breaking point.

“The reality is that these seemingly minor events and pressures over time and cumulatively diminish our well-being,” Meltzer said. “They (microstressors) impact our physical and our mental health the same as chronic stress, so they can disrupt sleep, can result in exhaustion. It can result in digestive issues or weight gain.”

It can even impact things like blood pressure and the risk of heart disease.

The effect on mental health, Meltzer said, can be profound. Microstress can contribute to things like anxiety and depression, difficulty concentrating, feeling defeated, decreased motivation, and overall decreased well-being.

It can be easy to ignore miscrostressers. You might be thinking, ‘But wait, isn’t this just life?’ Well, yes. It is.

You can’t control traffic, unresolved disagreements happen, or maybe you have that coworker who’s always cooking fish in the breakroom. You can’t control your colleague’s lunch, but you can control how you react to it and how you let it affect you. It just takes work.

Getting a handle on your microstressors starts with figuring out what your microstressors are.

“First, I think it's just to identify them to kind of figure out, you know, what's bothering us and are there ways to counter or eliminate them,” Meltzer said.

Once you pinpoint those microstressors, it’s time to put in the work to mitigate them.

3 ways to cope with microstress

The Harvard Business Review looked into this and found that even eliminating just a few microstresses in your life can make a significant difference.

They suggest these three strategies:

Push back on microstress in concrete, practical ways: This ranges from learning how to say 'No' to small asks, to managing technology and how it notifies and interrupts you, to readjusting relationships to prevent others from putting microstresses on you.

Be attuned to the microstress you are causing others: This won’t help just them, it’ll help you too. When people create microstress for others, it inevitably boomerangs from one to another.

Rise above: This might be one of the most difficult ones for many. One reason some microstressors affect people is that they simply allow them to.

Metlzer suggests trying different techniques to find what works great for you.

He suggests mindfulness practices such as breathing and meditation.
“Learning to be aware of how we're how we're feeling and then using techniques like deep breathing to decrease the physiological or psychological toll,” he said.

Technology can also be a useful tool to help practice mindfulness. Meltzer suggests apps like Calm, Waking Up, Headspace, and Timely

Try employing gratitude in your daily life.

“Writing things down that we feel grateful for often can mitigate some of that stress and bring forth a feeling of emotional well-being,” he said.

Finally, as with anything, overall health plays a factor: getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right.

It can be as easy as getting outside for a walk. Physical activity can make a big difference in disposition.

“All of us are faced with, again, these daily annoyances. Part of it is identifying them and recognizing the toll that they have and then having the courage and wisdom, if you will, to do something about them,” Metlzer said. “And those benefits — breathing mindfulness of humor, of movement — pay off not only to reduce those microstressors but to overall and overtime improve our physical health and our emotional sense of well-being.”  

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