Managing the Snowball Effect of Stress

You are no stranger to stress, especially right now in this season. Being a business owner or leader during a pandemic is certainly stressful. Balancing work-life demands when work, life, your children’s education, and everything in-between takes place in your own home is stressful. Even when there’s not a virus holding the globe hostage, you are familiar with stress. The big projects at work, the term paper you must write, your child’s schedule that conflicts with your work demands. . . you are quite familiar with stress.

Wait, back up a moment. You are familiar with the big, in-your-face stressors, the unmistakable demands on our time and attention that fall like a weight across our shoulders. You can find tons of articles about how to navigate your way through those turbulent waters. There’s a more insidious form of stress that you might not recognize, however, and this form of stress is bad news simply because we don’t realize it’s there until we’re feeling overwhelmed and inexplicably cranky: micro-stresses.

What Is It?

Micro-stresses are those small moments of frustration that aren’t enough on their own to ruin your day: losing track of your car keys, spilling your coffee on yourself just as you’re about to walk out the door (or jump on Zoom), realizing the ad copy you just sent out for production had a typo and scrambling to get it fixed before it’s too late, or forgetting your password and getting yourself locked out of your email until IT can help you reset it.

It’s About the Snowball

On their own, micro-stresses are blips in an otherwise normal day. You deal with them. You move on. These micro-stresses are everyday life stuff. You hit the snooze button on your alarm one time too many; you realize you’re out of shampoo once you’re in the shower; you burn your toast; you’re about two drops shy of creamer for the perfect cup of joe. You can experience a dozen or more micro-stressors before you even flip your work computer on and that builds up. Suddenly you’re feeling a little tense and tired. You pour another cup of coffee to perk yourself up and exhale, but the overwhelm is already starting to build and you can’t even put a finger on why.

Actually, It’s a Big Snowball

We recognize the big stressors for what they are. We know job loss, health concerns, going back to school, new jobs, and other major life changes are going to raise our anxiety. We have a system (or we develop one) to manage the grief, the anticipation, or the worry. Micro-stressors, however, may not even cross our radar as anything we need to give a second thought to, and as the tension builds, we begin to react to the stress without even knowing why. In fact, it’s often the culmination of these everyday moments that cause the biggest impact on our health and happiness. These small things can begin to shift our sense of self-worth. They can impact our sleep habits, and/or our eating habits. They can wear down our patience and our confidence.

Know They Are There and Address It

Managing micro-stresses isn’t all that different from managing the bigger moments of stress in your life.

  1. Recognize it for what it is. It’s a lot easier to mitigate a reactive response to stress build-up when you recognize it’s there.
  2. Recognize that not everything is something you can fix. Some of these moments are things you have power to change. For example, leaving earlier for work to avoid the morning traffic build-up that makes it difficult to arrive on time consistently. It’s also important to recognize that some of these stressors are out of your control, like the power outage that hits your area just as you were about to hit submit on your term paper.
  3. Once you’ve identified the things you can change, make a plan to change them, and be realistic. Don’t expect total change overnight. This is a process. Make a plan. Work it. Celebrate milestones of improvement and evolve.
  4. Have a support system to help you focus on the bigger picture or release steam safely. Family, friends, and mentors are great resources to lean on and grow with. Even if it’s just having an outlet to vent your frustrations, these individuals can provide you a mechanism to manage your micro-stresses before they become a big overwhelming avalanche. This can also be the person who is honest enough with you to call you out on the things you should be taking responsibility for, and to cheer you on as you make changes.
  5. Build in time for what makes you glow. It’s easy to let micro-stresses overwhelm us when we’re running on “constant go.” If you’re already on fumes because you’re overscheduled, those little things magnify quickly. Build in time for activities you love. Carve out space to sit in a quiet, reflective place to start or end your day. Allot time for a morning work-out. Set-up a corner of your home office for painting or music making or reading a really good book. Turn off your computer and step away from social media. Create spaces to recharge and refocus. Those spots of healthy self-indulgence reset the micro-stressor bar and keeps things from building up to unmanageable levels.