Microstress: The Hidden Threat to your Mental and Physical Well-being

Microstresses are small moments of stress caused by daily interactions with other people in our personal and professional lives that appear manageable on their own. 

The harmful nature of repeated microstresses is that they don't activate the brain's classic stress response to help us cope. Thus, the myriad of minor stresses we silently absorb over the course of a day, and which add up to one another, inevitably take a heavy toll on our mental and physical well-being.

Picture the following example: Joanne's last meeting of the day goes over by 15 minutes. On her way to pick up the kids, she gets stuck at three consecutive red lights. It's raining. Heading to the car, her 5-year-old son steps on her already blistered toe. Once home, when she opens the fridge, she notices that there's no milk. At the same time, she receives an ambiguous message from her boss, to which she's not quite sure how to respond. On top of this, she realizes that she forgot to text back her friend, who is currently going through a break-up. Just as the door opens, her husband walks in and asks if she's remembered to get more milk. That's when she loses it.

What is the difference between stress and microstress?

Microstress is different from the type of stress we’re all familiar with. Here’s how:

Stress is big, visible and obvious. Virtually everyone can relate to typical instances of stress: it arises out of universally recognized challenges or setbacks. Maybe it's caused by reporting to a mercurial boss whose daily mood swings affect the entire office. Or perhaps you've survived multiple rounds of layoffs that eliminated positions in your department. Or you may be dealing with a move, constantly providing assistance to dependent parents or enduring long, exhausting commutes.

By contrast, microstress is far less obvious. It's caused by difficult moments that we perceive as just another bump in the road – if we perceive them at all. Microstresses happen so quickly, and we're so accustomed to getting through them, that we hardly recognize anything has happened. Microstresses are the everyday little stressors – like Zoom meetings that go on too long, traffic jams, dishes left in the sink next to the empty dishwasher – that take their toll on us. Each of them may seem insignificant, but when they add up, they can become overwhelming.

The biology of microstress

Our brain knows how to process and respond to conventional forms of stress/danger – through the fight-or-flight response – an automatic physiological reaction in response to a threat perceived by the brain, which readies the body to fight or flee.

However, microstresses tend to fly under the radar of our "fight-or-flight" vigilance system, while taking a heavy toll. "Imagine the wind eroding a mountain," explains Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist at New York University. "It's not comparable to a big TNT explosion that blasts a hole in a mountain, but over time – if the wind never stops – it has the potential to slowly whittle the entire mountain down to a nub."

We might not be consciously aware of these microstressors, but just like ordinary stress, they, too, can raise our blood pressure or heart rate, or trigger hormonal or metabolic changes. "While microstressors are damaging our bodies, our brains are not fully registering them as a threat," explains Salinas, “Therefore, our brains are not triggering the same kind of protective higher-order mechanisms that might occur in the face of more obvious stress.”

What's more, you may be quicker to dismiss microstress than more macro forms of stress because you think you can handle them in the moment. In reality, your brain isn't dealing with them, because your normal stress response hasn't been triggered. So microstresses accrue, one after the other.

In fact, the human brain hardly differentiates between the various sources of chronic stress, according to neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. Its main concern is to establish a "body budget" that constantly seeks ways to minimize the cumulative effect of stressors to which we are exposed on a daily basis. This ensures that all our systems – cardiovascular, respiratory, immune, endocrine, gastrointestinal and others – are functioning in the most metabolically efficient way. 

Examples of microstresses and their consequences in our daily life

1.     The microstresses that undermine our performance capital

This form of microstress is a drain on our time and energy reserves. We experience it every time our workload increases, at work or at home. At work, we are given more responsibilities with fewer resources and limited training. We constantly face emergencies over priorities, while co-workers fail to meet their commitments and deadlines. This keeps us from achieving our goals. Back home, we're constantly interrupted, those around us don't share the workload equally, or our entourage lets us down.

2.     The microstresses that deplete our emotional reserves 

Our emotional reserves allow us to keep our emotions in check and stay calm under pressure. They are triggered by upsetting information, a persistent negative environment, or when we are victims or witnesses of malice or injustice.

3.     The microstresses that challenge our identity or values 

Our values and our identity are central to how we define who we are. Therefore, interactions or events that clash with our values or identity can be a major source of stress.

Feeling pressured to do something that's inconsistent with our values – for example, when a friendship slips away without warning, or a trusted leader behaves unpredictably or outside expected norms – is highly stressful. 

How to better manage microstress

From decades of social science research, we know that a negative experience has up to 5 times more impact on our well-being than a positive one. This means that efforts to eliminate even a few microstresses from our lives can make a significant difference to our well-being.

HBR research suggests that most people can find 3-5 easy opportunities to make a real difference to their level of microstress, by applying 3 strategies:

·       Reduce microstress. There are simple yet effective ways to counter microstressors that have a major impact on your daily life. These range from learning how to say no to small requests, to managing technology and how it notifies and interrupts you, to readjusting your relationships to prevent others from inflicting microstress on you. 

·       Be mindful of the microstress you cause others. Not only will it benefit others, but it will also benefit you. When we create microstress for others, it inevitably boomerangs back to us in one form or another.  For example, when microstress causes you to lash out at your partner, the inevitable result is anger or resentment that will turn against you. Emitting less means receiving less in return.

·       Take a step back. Learn to put microstress into perspective and let go of what's bothering you. According to an HBR study, people who allowed their lives to become overly one-dimensional ("work first") rather than multi-dimensional ("balance between work, family and leisure") were less able to relativize the microstresses they encountered.  In fact, leading a one-dimensional life means that our identities are overly tied to a single activity, such as work. This implies that while positive events at work can bring extreme highs, negative events can bring extreme lows.

Final thoughts

Microstress is often overlooked as a threat to our mental and physical well-being. Yet for most of us, every day is a minefield of microstress. A small, seemingly inconsequential moment can play out well beyond the initial microstress moment – perhaps even for weeks.

To reduce microstress in our lives, we need to identify its origin, recognize that the sources may not be obvious, track and understand the ripple effects, and find effective ways to counter them.

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