Life’s little aggravations can add up. Here’s how to cope.
Look for patterns of micro-stressors in your everyday life. Once you are able to identify the patterns, you can take the necessary steps to manage the stressors. Photograph by Juuso Hämäläinen

By Dr. Lea Lis

Is your child screaming? The nanny late? Research published by the Harvard Business Review in 2020 reports that micro-stressors are a significant source of daily feelings of anxiety and stress. While major stressors such as moving to a different state, changing career paths and medical emergencies are sources of anxiety, research suggests we are more resilient to these types of stressors than we are to what most would consider daily inconveniences. Micro-stressors are the daily aggravations that may seem like a “drop in the bucket” when they occur. We are learning that these drops add up, and some of us are barely able to keep our heads above water.

What are some of your micro-stressors? Do you ever misplace your wallet, which causes you to hit traffic on your commute, which then makes you late for work? Do you feel your boss or partner critiques you for aspects of your performance that you believe you are excelling in? These are considered micro-stressors.

What can you do to manage your micro-stressors? First, look for patterns of micro-stressors in your everyday life. Once you are able to identify the patterns, you can take the necessary steps to manage the stressors. For example, if you are misplacing your car keys regularly, consider investing in a Tile or other device that you can use to track where you last put your keys. Or get in the habit of putting your keys in the exact same place every evening.

Creating healthy daily morning and evening rituals gives you more control over micro-stressors. Waking up at the same time every day, drinking the same coffee, leaving for work at the same time—all create a sense of calm in a crazy world.

Check your expectations. If you are feeling let down by the lack of communication between you and your partner, or are often upset by the negativity your boss brings to morning meetings, reevaluate your expectations of the situation. While you may not be able to change your boss’ mood, you can accept it, understand it is not about you, and move on. I also recommend initiating a conversation with your partner about expectations.

Increase your self-compassion, and your willingness to be flexible. I say the mantra “control what you can, ignore the rest.” Many of life’s micro-stressors will be more easily managed if you give yourself the compassion you would extend to others in the same situation. Let go of blaming yourself for the little inconveniences. Allowing more flexibility into your routine, when it can realistically be incorporated, will make micro-stressors more manageable in the long run.

The book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, written by identical twin sisters Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, suggests that when you get home from work you should do a very quick mindfulness exercise to shift your mindset from work to home. In their TED interview, as part of the “How to Deal with Difficult Feelings” series, the Nagoskis say that when you’re grumpy and cranky and still thinking about that jerk at work, you need to frame-shift and do things like jumping jacks in your driveway or progressive muscle relaxation. This little exercise communicates to your body that your body is now a safe place for you to be. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing every muscle in your body for 10 seconds, while holding your breath, and then slowly relaxing the muscles and breathing comfortably. Mindfulness exercises put you in a position to be less irritable and more present for your family. Many micro-stressors are out of your control, but you can take charge of how you react to them. It often helps to take a deep breath and move on.

Lea Lis, MD, is a double board-certified adult and child psychiatrist, and author of No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships. drlealis.com