“I don’t even know what I’m anxious about!” That’s a common phrase I hear time and time again with my clients. But that actually is the definition of anxiety – being stressed about something that hasn’t even happened yet, something in your imagination. And it’s where micro-stress comes in.
You see, most of my clients have not had a particularly large trauma or event that was the start of all their worries. It’s the small everyday stresses of life that have built up over time that made their stress bucket overflow. So, for most of us, it’s really micro-stress that has the biggest impact on our mental health.
What is micro-stress?
Micro-stress refers to the small, everyday stressors that occur in our lives. Initially, they can appear tiny and insignificant, something that we just accept as a normal part of our life. And they are, in a way. On their own, they are easy to dismiss. But they can accumulate over time.
Examples of micro-stress
There are many examples of micro-stressors in our day-to-day life. And they can be different for everyone, depending on what triggers your stress response.
Here are a few examples of typical micro-stress:
- Running late for a meeting/appointment or similar time pressures
- Dealing with traffic, commuting
- A minor argument with a friend/family
- Email and notifications
- Technology overload
One thing they all have in common is that, individually, they are insignificant. But if they are persistent, they contribute to a constant state of tension, anxiety, and stress.
Symptoms of micro-stress
So, how can you tell when your micro-stressors are filling up your stress bucket? The symptoms can be subtle but very impactful – from headaches/migraines and muscle tension to digestive issues such as IBS and fatigue.
Your mental well-being is also affected, with irritability, mood swings, difficulty focusing and concentrating as well as sleep disturbances being the most common.
I often see people dismissing these symptoms as a part of normal everyday life. If anything, it has become more like a ’badge of honour’ – with being busy and stressed proof that you are somehow important and needed.
That’s also the reason why it’s more and more acceptable to talk about the amount of stress we are under. But what we don’t talk about enough yet is what we can do about it and how we can feel better again. We’re almost indulgent in our talk of stress and anxiety for ourselves and others.
How to manage micro-stress
If you look at the symptoms above, we could ALL say we have them. It’s now almost normalised to be tired, stressed out and not sleeping well. It seems to be more and more accepted, and this isn’t right.
Yes, we all experience the stresses as they are part of our lives but it’s when we let them accumulate that causes the problem. So let’s have a look at how we can manage micro-stress and look after our mental health.
1. Recognise it
I describe it as accumulating in a stress bucket. A little stress every day we can cope with, but we need to keep that stress bucket empty (find out more about the stress bucket in this post).
If you either pile too much into your stress bucket or don’t empty it properly, you’re going to accumulate too much stress in your bucket. This, in turn, will fuel the fight-or-flight part of your brain, leading to stress, anxiety, and depression.
The signals of the stress starting to build are the symptoms I’ve described above – so look out for them and don’t dismiss them.
2. Set boundaries
“No” is a full sentence! Saying no to things that you find overwhelming is not only empowering but is ultimately a form of self-care.
You’re a human being, not a robot. It’s important that you ensure you take on responsibilities that are achievable and manageable – getting on with those will make you feel better in the first instance.
Say ‘no’ politely and clearly when something comes your way that you feel will overload you.
In the long run, you will build up more resilience to take on more tasks if you want to. But start small and keep those boundaries clear.
Looking after your children (if you have them), getting the bills paid, keeping the kitchen clean… Whatever you feel is your priority, do that first without a thought for anything else.
Look at what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Delegate tasks if you can.
When you try to do everything, you lose sight of what’s really important. That only leads to further anxiety and overwhelm. It’s a bit of a vicious circle.
Differentiate between what is essential, and what is just ‘nice to do.’
This is not just about having a bubble bath and putting a face mask on.
Do activities that you enjoy, be around people that make you feel good, and make time for your hobbies and interests. When you do this, it will reconnect you with things other than what’s going on in your head.
It provides perspective and allows your brain to relax into the default mode network, solving problems in the background while you take a much-needed break.
Anxious thoughts are exhausting. You can’t just switch them off, but you can switch them over to something more positive.
5. Relaxation techniques
Deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are all good techniques.
But there are many types of relaxation techniques that are active – like yoga and running (Yes, running! – I can’t imagine it myself, but apparently some people find it very relaxing).
The key here is to have some self-awareness and do those things that help you to relax.
If you really feel totally overwhelmed, then seek professional help. Most of the clients I see have had a build-up of micro-stressors over several years, it’s not always about massive trauma.
Emptying the stress bucket means you have the headspace to deal with the everyday stressors of life and get on with living.