Common micro stressors and how to tackle them

Mental Health

Spot the micro stressors in your life and take steps to soothe them

Stress is something that all of us experience – it can come and go, or affect us over long periods of time. This stress can come from a number of different places, and we can often trace them back to big events in our lives. But something you may not be so aware of is the way that micro stressors affect our wellbeing.

So, what are micro stressors? They’re the smaller things in our lives that pile up to drain us – depleting our resilience, and making it harder for us to go about our daily lives in a good and healthy headspace.

Do you ever have a ‘bad day’ that leaves you drained and miserable but which, when you recount it to a loved one in the evening, is a list of seemingly ‘menial’ problems? Maybe the WIFI kept on dropping out, or you spent half an hour on hold to customer services, or you got caught in traffic and missed your train. These could be classed as micro stressors, and a study from 1980 published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that, when built up, they can actually have a greater psychological effect than major life incidents.

Here, we’re exploring examples of micro stressors from four areas of our lives, and unpacking some tips for tackling them.

1. Your environment

As humans, we’re very sensitive to our environment, and there are countless ways that the space that we’re in could affect our stress levels.

It could be that there’s a lot of clutter building up in your home, which is making it difficult to keep a clear head, and is also creating obstacles for going about your daily life. Maybe there’s something about the lighting that isn’t right – studies have highlighted how artificial light can trigger our stress response – or perhaps there’s too much noise going on in the background.

Sometimes, there’s really no avoiding stressful environments, but in those cases just having an awareness of what you’ll be entering into and how it may affect your wellbeing means that you can turn to on-the-go self-care tips like mindfulness activities.

Back in the home, where you do have some control over the space, consider realistic ways you can keep on top of clutter. Your home doesn’t have to look like a showroom, but there are steps you can take to try to stay on top of things, for example setting a policy of putting items away immediately after use, or communicating with your family in order to get everyone on board with the clean-up mission.

2. The workplace

The workplace is a breeding ground for micro stressors, and you can probably relate to the feeling of stress hitting you from multiple different angles. There could be small things in your role that don’t align with your values or interests, or which don’t seem to match the priorities of your company and so cause unnecessary stress. Or you may feel overwhelmed by deadlines and the pressure to perform.

In 2020, an article published in Harvard Business Review, looking specifically at micro stressors in the workplace, took a decade of research and concluded there were 12 micro stressors that are a result of the way we interact with other people, and these could be sorted into three categories:

  • Stress that reduces your personal capacity
  • Stress that reduces your emotional reserves
  • Stress that challenges your identity or values

When it comes to tackling stress at work, the best thing you can do is communicate, and also set boundaries and expectations. If you’re not ready to speak to a manager or HR representative, a trusted colleague can be a good place to start, as getting things off your chest can do wonders – and you may find that they are also going through a similar thing, which could put you in a stronger position if you want to raise the issues formally.

Setting boundaries at work can feel very challenging, but consider some reasonable expectations for yourself and identify anything that falls outside of this perimeter. Are you being asked to work outside of your contracted hours? Or are you taking on tasks that are not in your job description?

It may be helpful to work with a career coach on building up the confidence to set these boundaries and expectations, and to begin to take back control of your workday.

woman working on computer

3. Relationships

There are many ways that relationships can add to our stress load, as we may be trying to meet others’ expectations and needs, or we could simply be picking up some of their stress and taking it on as our own.

As identified in the report published in Harvard Business Review, one category of micro stressors is stress that challenges your personal identity and values. Perhaps you are being asked, or feel pressured, to do things that don’t align with your core value system, and this is creating conflict in your life. Or maybe you’re spending time around people whose actions you don’t approve or, or which are hurtful to you or others.

Relationships can be difficult things to navigate, but as in the case of workplace micro stressors, the key is to try to express the things that you’re feeling in a clear and honest way. If you’re talking to a loved one, the chances are that they will want to support you in tackling the stress you’re experiencing, and you may be able to work together to put a plan into place.

4. Perfectionism and our own expectations

We all have a vision for how we would like our lives to be. How we would like to look, behave, how the world around us would respond to our wishes, and how our days would pan out.

It’s really not news to anyone that things don’t always work that way – in fact, that’s something that we’re confronted with constantly. But when it comes to managing the stress of this, it’s about understanding that we can’t control everything, and learning to let go.

Often, when we have very high expectations of ourselves, we may tend to hold ourselves to unreachable standards, which really only leads us to disappointment.

If you find yourself feeling as though there’s too much on your plate, consider the priorities. For example, do you need to clean the whole house in one go, or could you do a couple of rooms today and a couple more tomorrow? Or, do you need to tackle all your tasks by yourself, or could you delegate to others and work together to get things done?

Ultimately, this comes down to self-compassion, about listening to your needs and acting accordingly. It’s the first step in building a nurturing and kind relationship with yourself, something that’s always worth the investment.


Connect with a life coach, and learn how to set boundaries and build confidence, using lifecoach-directory.org.uk

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