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What to Know About Microstress and its Ripple Effects

Man experiencing stress

Microstressors: the little everyday occurrences that give tiny zings of stress, elevating heart rate and stimulating uncomfortable thought processes that we would rather avoid. These microstressors can happen every day, multiple times a day. It is easy to become so used to these microstressors that you don’t even realize the ripple effects these little stresses have caused, leaving unrecognized damage in their wake. Learning to recognize when microstressors occur is important, but learning how to identify the effects of these stressors and how to manage them is even more crucial to easing and avoiding daily stress. Read on to learn more about the devastating effects of microstressors and how to recognize and relieve these pesky occurrences and their ripple effects.

What is Microstress?

Microstressors come in many forms and are known by many names. You may have unknowingly recognized microstressors and called them something such as “hassles,” “annoyances,” or an “inconvenience.” These are all common—and often understated—identifiers of microstressors in life. Microstressors are everywhere. Some microstressors include:

  • Travel: This includes sitting in traffic and daily commutes.
  • Technology: Technology errors and the constant notifications of text, emails, and social media. 
  • Physical discomfort: This may include chronic pain, discomfort, disability, fatigue, allergies, etc. 
  • Relationships: Disagreements, small conflicts, miscommunication, misunderstandings, etc. 
  • Obligations: Tax and government deadlines, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, etc.

These are just a small sample of some microstressors that you may encounter on any given day.

What sets microstress apart from macro—or “normal”—stress is that one may be quick to recognize and understand how major stress affects them because of its magnitude. Microstress, however, may seem so small and insignificant that it barely registers as a stressor because it seems easy to navigate around quickly without consequence.

Man on the phone in his car experiencing stress
The little everyday occurrences give tiny zings of stress. (Image Source: Source: Shutterstock)

You may think about it in terms of driving. It is easy to understand why large detours or a car crash is considered a large delay, but you may not even think about the small speed bumps or stop signs you must yield to on your journey. These speed bumps and stop signs may seem insignificant and easily navigated, but the frequency of these interruptions may actually interrupt your progress far more than you realize.

The Ripple Effect of Microstress

Microstressors may seem insignificant at the time, but constant microstressors can take a significant toll on your physical, emotional, and mental health. In addition, chronic stress can have a damaging and lasting impact on your health. A significant cause of the toll on physical and mental health is the ripple effects that these microstressors are catalysts of. For example, the following story is a simple example of how a microstressor can cause negative trickle-down effects on many aspects of life and health.

  • Sarah is driving home from work and gets stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident several miles ahead of her. With no way to exit the freeway, Sarah must now slow to a near stop. She looks at the clock and realizes she cannot pick up her daughter from daycare on time. Sarah calls her husband and asks him to pick up their daughter. 
  • As Sarah talks to her husband, her tone is annoyed and agitated. Her husband is also annoyed by needing to leave early from work and rush to pick up their daughter, and they exchange curt words. She hears the horns of other cars honk around her, and her agitation grows. 
  • When she arrives home, she is exhausted and hungry from missing dinner. Feeling too burned out to prepare a nutritious meal, Sarah reaches for a bowl of sugary cold cereal to eat before washing up and rushing through her daughter’s bedtime routine. Her husband must work late from home to make up for leaving early, and Sarah goes to bed alone.

As you can see, Sarah’s microstress example is a story of how a microstress—such as traffic—can cause a domino effect of microstress that affects not only the person initially experiencing the microstress, but also those around them.

Coping With Microstress

How you handle and cope with microstress may vary greatly depending on the frequency of the stressors and other major stressors in life, your general state of health and fatigue, and other present physical or mental stimulation that are occurring simultaneously. Luckily, there are some simple ways that you can combat microstress before it happens and while you experience it.

  1. Identify microstressors: Start by watching for and identifying those seemingly small microstressors in your life as they occur. Recognizing microstress is the first step to nullifying it. 
  2. Practice calm: Practice calming techniques that can break the cycle of microstress before it starts and even mid-stress. Some of these calming techniques may include breathing exercises, mindfulness, affirmations, tapping, and progressive muscle relaxation, to name just a few. 
  3. Exercise: Regular exercise not only helps relieve stress, it can also help regulate and prevent it. Exercising helps stimulate endorphins, improves mood, and creates lasting stress relief. 
  4. Sleep: Getting enough regular sleep is critical in preventing and managing stress—both micro and macro. Establish a set bedtime schedule and stick to it, even on holidays and weekends. Ensuring your body gets enough quality sleep will improve all aspects of your life—microstress included. 
  5. Communicate: Make it a goal to improve your speech and communication skills, especially in times of stress. Learning how to calmly express yourself in times of stress will help you express your stressors, the reasons behind them, and your needs in the moment in a non-confrontational manner. Effective communication also deescalates interpersonal relationship strain that often occurs with micostress.
Are You Letting Micro-Stresses Burn You Out? – The Ken Coleman Show

Final Thoughts

Microstress is bound to happen every day, if not multiple times a day. Learning how to recognize microstress is essential in order to stop the stress—and its ripple effects—in its tracks. As you practice being aware of the multitude of microstressors around you each day, you will have ample opportunity to practice calming and deescalation techniques that will be essential tools in avoiding emotional catastrophe. Microstress will always be present, but how you cope is completely within your control. As you limit the reach of the ripple effects of microstress, you may find you will be slowly eliminating the effects of stress on your life as a whole. Don’t forget to share what you’ve learned and your success with those around you as you work together to eliminate the damaging effects of microstress in your life and relationships.