Mar 6, 2023 - Economy

How tiny stresses pile up — and what to do about it

Illustration of a dark room full of cubicles, with some lit up by computer screens

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When we're hit with big, bad news — like getting laid off or a troubling diagnosis — we often spring into action to deal with the problem.

  • But smaller things that irk us, such as a terse message from a manager or a sink full of dishes, add up. And they eventually have an outsized impact on our mental and physical health.

Why it matters: Most of us tend to ignore micro-stresses and just focus on the big stuff, but the small things require our attention too.

  • "None of these things evoke the fight or flight mechanism," says Rob Cross, a professor at Babson College and author of a forthcoming book about micro-stress. "They're all relatively small."
  • But even if we forget about them, our bodies don't, says Cross. In fact, small stresses trigger some of the same physical effects that big ones do, like elevated blood pressure and lower-quality sleep, he says.
  • Micro-stresses explain why we can feel exhausted or defeated at the end of a day even if nothing big went wrong.

Case in point: One fascinating study found that if even a relatively minor social stress is experienced within two hours of a meal, your metabolism of that meal is disrupted, and the effect is equivalent to adding 104 calories to that meal.

What to do: We can all take steps to be more aware of — and address — the micro-stresses in our lives.

  1. Have a big conversation about a small(ish) thing: If your boss is routinely annoying you by not communicating deadlines or if your child is stressing you out by taking hours to respond to messages, consider bringing it up in a bigger conversation, Cross says. You'll likely be surprised at how much eradicating a small but repeated stressor boosts your mood.
  2. Diversify your life. Cross' research showed that people with robust personal lives, filled with family, friends and hobbies, tend to be less affected by work-related micro-stresses.
  3. Meditate. As we've reported, practicing meditation and mindfulness can clear your mind and do away with stresses — small or big.
Go deeper