Understanding Micro-Stressors

See also: Dealing with Stress - Top Tips

We all know that ‘big ticket’ items like moving home, changing job, splitting up with your partner, or living through a global pandemic are stressful. However, there are many other small events and incidents that can also be very stressful. Most of these are relationship-based. What’s worse, these small stresses, though often insignificant in themselves, can easily become the norm—and that makes them very hard to spot.

Over time, the level of stress from these can become very high. We can find ourselves exhausted at the end of a ‘normal’ day just from trying to navigate them. This page describes these ‘micro-stresses’ or ‘micro-stressors’, and explains what you can do to manage them in your life.

Three Types of Micro-Stress

In July 2020, Rob Cross, Jean Singer and Karen Dillon published an article in Harvard Business Review about what they called ‘micro-stresses’. Their findings were based on extensive research over a decade or so, in a wide range of industries.

They found 12 micro-stresses that directly arise from how we interact with other people at home or at work, and grouped these into three types:

  • Stresses that reduce your personal capacity

    Your personal capacity is the amount of time and energy that you have to manage your life, and all the demands that you face at home and at work.

    Generally speaking, these stresses either make extra work for you or make it harder to do your existing work. They may relate to either home or work.

    Examples of these micro-stresses include times when other people do not deliver what they have promised, or to the deadline that has been agreed. We often associate this with work, but it can also happen through voluntary work, or at home, if your partner has promised to do some shopping, and forgets, for example.

    Increased levels of work, particularly when there is no pattern, also fall into this category. Other issues that can cause this kind of stress are unpredictable behaviour, especially from those who are more senior than you, and poor communication, particularly when that becomes the norm.

  • Stresses that reduce your emotional reserves

    Your emotional reserves are what allow you to manage your feelings, and keep calm under pressure.
    Most of us have probably had days when we feel so stressed that we are close to either bursting into tears, or starting to shout at everyone around us: that’s when your emotional reserves are low.

    For more about this, you may be interested in our pages on Self-Regulation, and other aspects of Emotional Intelligence.

    Stresses that reduce your emotional reserves tend to be related to negative feelings, such as worrying about someone we love, or being frightened about the future, or the impact of what we are doing. Interacting with people who are very negative can also have this effect.

  • Stresses that challenge your identity or values

    The final set of stresses are about challenges to your identity or values.

    Our values and identity are very personal for most of us. They are at the core of how we define ourselves, and therefore anything that challenges them is effectively, a challenge to us as individuals (see box).

    Dilts’ Logical Levels

    Robert Dilts describes the concept of ‘logical levels’ as a way to explain why some things were much easier to change than others. He set out a hierarchy of five levels. Each level directly affects those below it in the hierarchy but is much less likely to affect those above it.

    From the bottom, the levels are:

    • Environment – what is around us
    • Behaviour – what we do, within the environment
    • Capability or competence – the skills and abilities that drive and enable behaviour, the ‘how’ of our behaviour
    • Beliefs or values – why we do what we do
    • Identity – ‘who’ you are, or your sense of self

    Simply looking at this hierarchy, it is clear that beliefs, values and identity are crucial to our sense of self, and why we behave in certain ways—because they are at the top of the hierarchy, and therefore affect everything else that we do.

    See our page on Dilt's Logical Levels for more.

    Any interactions or incidents that routinely conflict with your sense of values or identity will therefore be very stressful. These stressors include being put under pressure to do something that is not consistent with your values, having your self-confidence undermined, or having your network disrupted.

    This final group of stressors is often extremely hard for other people to spot, because your values and identity are not always obvious to those around you. These may be deeply-held views, and even you may be unaware of some of them—until they start to cause a conflict.

    Case study: Relative values

    John was a successful businessman, with many years’ experience of running his own company. To most of those around him, he had absolutely nothing to prove, and no reason to feel insecure in any way.

    However, he himself always felt conscious that there was a gap in his CV, because he had never gone to university.

    His wife Sarah was a researcher, working in a university. She had several degrees from prestigious universities. Many of her friends, and particularly the people with whom she and John socialised most often, also had multiple degrees.

    She was aware that John sometimes seemed reluctant to socialise with her friends, and often made excuses to avoid doing so. However, it was not until she asked him directly one day that she realised why.

    “They always ask what subject I studied and where,” he complained. “I’m over 60! Why would that even matter? I hate it! And then I have to explain that I never went to university, and they don’t know what to say.”

    These questions exposed a huge difference in identity and values between John and his wife’s friends. Unsurprisingly, he found the situation very stressful—but even his partner, who was so close to him, had not realised.

Managing Micro-Stressors

Traditional advice about managing stress—remove yourself, take time out, talk it through with someone and so on—doesn’t really work for micro-stressors. There are just too many of them, from too many sources.

However, there are some promising ways to help you manage these micro-stressors. Helpfully, Cross, Singer and Dillon’s work suggests that there are three main actions you can and should take.

  1. Identify just two or three micro-stressors to focus on

    You can’t manage every micro-stressor in your life.

    Instead, you need to identify just a few—and that means just a few relationships, too, not two or three for every person! If you’re struggling to identify which micro-stressors are most important for you, you may want to take our quiz, What’s Stressing You Out?

    Once you have identified the two or three that are most important to you, you can start to take action to reduce them. For example, you can talk to the people concerned about the effect on you, and change your behaviour to reduce the level of stress.

  2. Spend time on other relationships and activities

    You can’t always get away from micro-stressors, but you can distract yourself.

    Make a choice to invest your time in relationships and activities that make you feel good.

    That doesn’t just mean going for a run, or reading a good book, although these are important. The most rewarding activities are those that help you to build meaningful connections with other people. That might be regularly going for a run with a friend, or doing voluntary work in the community, or helping your children with a project. The point is to do something that builds your self-worth by giving something to others, and gives you a sense of purpose and meaning.

  3. Start to disconnect from people that cause you stress

    Part of the issue with micro-stressors is that a pattern builds up over time. One incident is not stressful, but over the long-term, the overall pattern is harder to manage.

    It is therefore important to take a step back and evaluate your relationships with others (and again, you may find it helpful to use our quiz What’s Stressing You Out? to do this).

    When you identify relationships that are not helping you to feel good—and may be doing the opposite—then it is time to start to distance yourself.

    You can’t always distance yourself from colleagues, and you may not want to cut off particular friends altogether. However, you can stop enabling the behaviours that cause you stress and put some boundaries around your relationships. For example:

    • If you have a colleague who routinely fails to deliver on promises, causing you extra work, make sure that their promises are documented and copied to your manager (and theirs). That way, you can follow up without it becoming your problem to sort.
    • Friends that only want to do things on their terms are not real friends. Try to build more equal relationships, involving give and take from both of you.

Finding the pattern—and then breaking it

The key to managing micro-stressors is to start by identifying the pattern. Once you have done so, you can begin to put in place changes to your own behaviour that will help you to break the pattern, and form new, more productive —and less stressful—behaviours.