Why little stressors can actually be a big deal for mental health

You’ve heard of stress, but what about microstress? Discover what it is, why it happens and what you can do if you feel like you’re experiencing it.

Stressed out about the cost of living?

You’re not alone, with a Beyond Blue survey showing it’s the main cause of stress for Australians these days.

Chronic time stress is another big source of worry, so that nearly a third of Australians feel like they’re constantly rushed for time, while other big stressors include personal health, relationships and work.

And then there’s something called microstress.

What is microstress?

In a new book The Microstress Effect, authors Rob Cross and Karen Dillon describe microstressors are those smaller aggravations – like when someone cuts you off in traffic, you discover the outfit you wanted to wear is stained 10 minutes before you need to be somewhere, and not realising you’re out of milk until you get home.

On their own, they’re pretty manageable, but when they accumulate, microstressors may be just as – if not more – harmful to health than some of the bigger sources of stress.

“I actually think life’s smaller stressors can be more worrisome,” mindfulness instructor and founder of meditation platform Soul Alive Luke McLeod says.

“When something happens to us, like the death of a loved one, although it can be traumatic, it can also jolt us into really appreciating life and possibly trigger some important and needed changes that need to happen in our lives,” Luke says.

“Whereas we don’t have this perspective shift when we’re experiencing the usual day-to-day stressors.

“These then compound over time without us ever noticing or doing anything about it.”

How to recognise microstress

According to the Australian Psychological Society, identifying a stressor is the first step to doing something about it.

Psychologist and founder of The TARA Clinic, Tara Hurster says while that’s often easier said than done, it’s important.

“Most people would say they’d benefit from less stress, yet that’s not actually going to solve the problem,” Tara says.

“The problem actually is that most people aren’t able to accurately put their finger on what the underlying stressor is – because it almost always isn’t what you originally think it is.”

So maybe it’s worth considering whether, on top of – or even in the absence of – life’s big stressors, you’re under microstress too?

Best ways to manage microstress

Luke flags that you can’t avoid life’s microstressors.

“We’ll almost inevitably be exposed to all types of stress, every day,” he says.

“We can’t avoid this, so we need to start being more proactive with our self-care in restoring the balance.

“I can guarantee that stress will be scheduled into your day whether you like it or not, so start adding ‘self-care exercises’ to your daily to-do lists and you’ll notice the change in your overall health almost immediately.”

Tara agrees, highlighting the importance of doing what you can to widen something called your “resilience window”.

“When we have a narrow window, more of life’s ups and downs end up outside the window, so that we’re impacted by them more,” she says.

Tara explains that there are things you can do that widen your resilience window, like exercise, mindfulness practice, therapy and seeing friends.

Meanwhile, drinking coffee to stay awake, drinking alcohol to relax at the end of the day, and staying back late at work every night will narrow your window.

“The important thing to know is what activities open and close your window, and then scheduling in the helpful ones as non-negotiable appointments,” she says.

More ways to manage stress and enhance self care:

Written by Karen Fittall.