Microstress: what is the meaning of the term, examples of it, and expert tips on how to manage it

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Experts say that microstresses can lead to physical and mental health problems if they build up

Life is full of ups and downs, and we all learn to live with stress to some degree as a part of it. Not all stress is bad, in fact, sometimes it can motivate us to get things done and aspire for bigger and better goals. The stress associated with planning a wedding, moving house, or having a baby, for example, can all be interpreted as ‘good’ stress because the end outcome to these things are extremely positive. Also these are often once-in-a-lifetime events, or possibly twice, or thrice, so we can learn to cope with them because they are infrequent.

Some stress, however, is undoubtedly difficult to deal with. Some of these ‘bad’ stresses are linked to big, and thankfully usually less common life events, such as divorce or the death of a loved one. There are some smaller stresses, however, which can also cause negative impacts for people over time if they are not dealt with - these are called microstresses. But what exactly are microstresses, how exactly does it affect people, what are some common examples, and how can we deal with them effectively? NationalWorld has spoken to three experts to find out the answers to these questions. Keep reading to find out all you need to know.

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What is microstress?

A microstress, as the name suggests, is a small amount of everyday stress. It’s common for people to experience microstresses on a regular, or even daily, basis. Solution-focused psychotherapist Gin Lalli told NationalWorld that microstresses first appear “tiny and insignificant and something that we just accept as a normal part of lives because in a way they are”, but there are times when people are dealing with too many of them at once.

It is when these stresses build in number that they can become problematic, wellbeing coach Marie Paterson told NationalWorld. She added that it is when these day-to-day stresses accumulate that people can become physically and mentally unwell.

What are some examples of microstress?

There are many examples of microstress, and some are unique to individuals and their circumstances. Here are some common examples, however.

  • Being late for a meeting or appointment
  • Being unable to find a parking space

  • Having the deadline for a task looming

  • Interacting with people you find it hard to communicate with

  • Attending a medical appointment

  • Being low on petrol or charge for your car

  • Forgetting about a meeting, appointment or event

  • Dealing with traffic issues and commuting

  • A minor disagreement with a loved one

  • Feeling overwhelmed by workload

  • Getting an email, phone call or other phone notification

  • Being interrupted while doing something you enjoy

What impact does microstress have on us?

We all face almost constant exposure to microstresses, according to clinical hypnotherapist and wellness coach Geraldine Joaquim. Individually, they appear to be harmless but when they start to pile on top of each other this is when people start to feel overwhelmed. Joaquim also said that trying to deal with lots of microstresses at once causes “havoc” with people’s psychology and physical health. 

She explained that each time a person experiences a microstress their body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to help them deal with it, and these then dissipate when the stress has passed. However, if people face multiple microstresses then they will have a constant release of these hormones, and that keeps them in a state of hyper-alertness. In addition, the overload of cortisol can cause problems with digestion, reproduction and sleep, as well as increase internal inflammation.

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Experts explain common everyday microstresses and share tips on how to manage them.Experts explain common everyday microstresses and share tips on how to manage them.
Experts explain common everyday microstresses and share tips on how to manage them. | Adobe Photos/NationalWorld/Kim Mogg

Joaquim told NationalWorld: “People end up living in the stress response system, without any respite, and that leads to stress being overwhelming and eventually burnout. [High levels of stress] is also implicated in almost all serious diseases.”

The continual presence of cortisol and adrenaline also creates a vicious cycle for people, who then begin to view things negatively and imagine more bad things happening to them. Joaquim said: “The more negative thoughts you have, the more stress hormones are released, and that keeps you in the stress response system which keeps you stuck in a negative mindframe because it thinks you’re in some kind of crisis or emergency.”

Lalli added that while the symptoms associated with microstress can be subtle they can be very impactful, especially when building up together. She said they can include headaches, migraines, muscle tension, irritability, mood swings and difficulty focusing and concentrating.

How can we manage microstress?

Managing stress is a skill, according to Joaquim, but everyone can develop it by following these steps:

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  • build self-awareness of what makes you stressed
  • take part in self-care to help lower stress levels
  • learn to be present
  • live with purpose
  • connect with others

The first step is for people to notice when they are starting to think negatively, and develop strategies to help them deal with this. This could be as simple as changing what they are doing to break the thought cycle, or it could involve doing deep breathing exercises. 

Paterson added: “Inhale for four and exhale for six. You might like to breathe out as if you are blowing through a straw. This helps to take you out of "fight or flight" mode and into what is known as "rest and digest" mode.”

The second step is for people to do things to increase levels of the happy hormone serotonin in their body. Joaquim said that when someone has a constant flow of this hormone in their body it can help regulate the levels of stress hormones so that people are then able to cope better. To produce more serotonin, all someone has to do is focus on positive interactions with other people or animals, carry out positive activities they enjoy, and also think positively.  

Thirdly, people should do things to look after themselves that make them happy, be it taking part in a weekly exercise class or booking in for a weekly massage. Paterson also suggested that people may find it helpful to start writing a journal. She said: “Write about what is on your mind and don't censor your thoughts, just pour out your feelings. You don't have to keep what you write either. This could be a great way to get a handle on the important things in life and to put things into perspective. It might be flippant to say ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ but ultimately what you are trying to do.”

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Finally, people should try to step back and see the stressful events in their life from a different point of view, or a wider viewpoint. To help with this, Joaquim suggests that when people are faced with a microstress they should ask themselves what they can do about it at that moment. If they can resolve it easily then they should go ahead and do that. She said: “It may just mean a phone call to extend a deadline, or asking for help, or calling to let someone know you’re going to be late.” If someone can’t do anything about their stress, however, then she said people shouldn’t allow themselves to continue to worry about it. She added: “Worrying does nothing but increase your stress levels, it doesn’t resolve the issue so give yourself space to put it to one side and deal with it when you are able to.”

Lalli also suggested that if someone feels very overwhelmed by their stress then it may be a good idea for them to seek professional help. All of the experts who spoke to NationalWorld agreed that people should also be kind to themselves. Paterson said: “Don’t be hard on yourself if life’s pressures are building up. Tell yourself it is perfectly right to feel this way with life as it is for you and then take action to make some changes.”

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