Managing Micro-stress

by Adapt Training and Development

April is a lot of things—Stress Awareness Month, Autism Awareness Month, Counseling Awareness Month, Alcohol Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and interestingly, National Frog Month. In observance of Stress Awareness Month, we’d like to introduce readers to the concept of micro-stress and share a few ideas for self-management.

In a February 2023 Harvard Business Review article, Gretchen Gavett explains that micro-stress “involves small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own but compound over time.” This can lead to a sense of exhaustion or feeling overwhelmed with no clear explanation. Micro-stressors can happen, for example, at work when we feel as though we’re putting out one small fire after another or encountering a series of barriers to getting things done. Our personal lives may also be jammed with micro-stressors, such as traffic, sick kids, continuous demands of technology, or any number of things that can take a toll on us. This CBS News article offers information about the effect of micro-stress on our physical and mental health.

Related to micro-stress is the concept of allostatic load, which is described as “the wear and tear on the body which accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress” (McEwen, 1993). While we all can experience repeated or chronic stress, people who are part of marginalized communities (including but not limited to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities) often experience a disproportionate level of stress. This cumulative stress can have a compounding effect on people’s physical health and mental wellbeing. The article What a Load to Bear: Stress Within Marginalized Populations does an excellent job of explaining the concept of allostatic load and offers some ideas for coping.

So, what can we do when micro-stressors or an accumulation of stressors are getting the best of us? Here are some suggestions from the articles mentioned above.

  • General stress management strategies are helpful – deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, mediation, mindfulness.
  • Try to identify the things that are bothering you, small and large. Writing them down can be helpful. Sometimes when we see things on paper, it can help us distinguish between the things that are within our control and those that may call for larger scale (societal, systemic) solutions.
  • Connect with people who make you feel a sense of belonging. Consider reducing the amount of time you spend with people who drain you.
  • Make and protect time for things that help you feel calm and centered—for example, making artwork or music, spending time with animals, or just being in nature.
  • Shore up your boundaries by knowing what you want to say ‘yes’ to and ‘no’ to.
  • Take an honest look at the way technology (e.g., phone) and media (e.g., news) may be impacting your stress levels and consider making changes.
  • Build some pauses into your day where you can—for instance, listening to music on your drive to work rather than news and making a commitment to taking 15-minute stress relief breaks at work.