When people talk about harmful stress – the kind that can affect health – they usually point to big, life-changing events, such as the death of a loved one. A growing body of research suggests that minor, everyday stress – caused by flight delays, traffic jams, cellphones that run out of battery during an important call, etc. – can harm health, too, and even shorten life spans.
One traffic jam a week isn't going to kill you, of course. Psychologists say it's the nonstop strains of everyday life that can add up.
“These hassles can have a big impact on physical health and well-being, particularly when they accumulate and we don't have time to recover from one problem before another hits us,” says California-based psychologist Melanie Greenberg, author of “The Stress-Proof Brain.”
Chronic daily hassles can lead to increased blood pressure, which puts you at risk for heart disease, explains Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University. She adds that it can also raise the levels of our stress hormones, a process that affects our immune system and can lead to chronic inflammation, a condition associated with a host of serious illnesses, including cancer.
It's not necessarily the exposure to the continuous streams of minor stressors that can take a toll; rather, it's how we react.
In a 2016 study, researchers interviewed about 900 people about the frequency with which they experienced stress and had them evaluate the severity of it. They also tested their resting heart rate variability, or HRV, the variation in intervals between heartbeats. (A higher HRV is associated with a healthy response to stress; a lower one has been associated with increased risk for heart disease and death.)
The researchers found that it wasn't the number of stressful events but how a person perceived their stress and then reacted to it emotionally that was associated with lower HRV.
In a 2014 study of 1,300 men, Aldwin and other researchers had participants rank on a stress scale of 0 to 4 situations they encountered during the course of a day. Using a list that included such items as “your kids,” “your garden” and “your commute to work,” the researchers found that men who perceived their everyday hassles as very stressful had a similar mortality risk as people who consistently reported more highly stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one.
“Men who rated daily lives as 'extremely' stressful were three times more likely to die during the study than those who reported low levels of daily stress,” Aldwin says. Learning to roll with the punches, she says, can protect you.
While it's normal to lose one's cool from time to time, some people may be hard-wired to overreact, Aldwin says.
“People who are higher in neuroticism, meaning those who have strong emotions that are easily aroused, are much more likely to get upset over minor problems,” she says.
Aldwin points to research suggesting that people who are naturally more volatile tend to have a more reactive physiological response to perceived threats, such as increased heart rates and cortisol levels, and can take longer to calm down, which makes it much harder to regulate emotions.
Sometimes, overblown reactions – such as throwing a tantrum over a train delay or dirty dishes left in the sink – are a matter of context.
“Being late to work may not be a major thing unless your boss has gotten mad at you for being late too much,” Aldwin says. A minor spat with your spouse might not be a big thing, she says, unless it occurs within the context of ongoing problems that are continually stressing the marriage.
Greenberg adds that being worn down by chronic stress can also make us more vulnerable to day-to-day irritations, work problems or interpersonal conflicts that can cause us to overreact. When we're chronically stressed and on high alert, Greenberg says, “our fight,-flight-or-freeze response never turns off, we get a buildup of cortisol in our bodies, and that makes us vulnerable to diseases.”
Even for people with a propensity to sweat the small stuff, psychologists say, there are strategies to help regulate their emotions. Florida-based psychotherapist Amy Morin, for instance, advises her patients to notice physical symptoms that indicate stress levels are rising.
“People say they go from zero to 10, but when you really pay attention, there are some warning signs, like clinched fists, a flushed face or a racing heart,” she says. Recognizing and then managing your physiological response, by excusing yourself from the situation or taking some deep breaths, can stop an angry escalation before it really gets going, she says.
In a study published in 2016 in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, researchers asked more than 100 university students and staff members to track minor annoyances they experienced (such as traffic, a dead cellphone battery) and simple pleasures (socializing with friends, engaging in a hobby) over the course of six days and then record daily progress toward goals they hoped to achieve.
The researchers found that goal progress appeared to suffer on days with a high number of minor annoyances and relatively few simple pleasures. But on days when the participants reported a high number of simple pleasures, the effect of small annoyances was buffered and didn't get in the way of their daily goals.
Researcher Vanessa Patrick explains, “Being mindful of small, everyday pleasures, which are readily accessible to most people at little or no cost, can help dampen the impact of everyday annoyances and contribute greatly to our happiness and well-being.”
Instead of personalizing a problem – as in “Why do these things always happen to me?” – it's helpful to view annoyances through a fact-based lens, says Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.” For example, reminding yourself that there are millions of cars on the road, she says, can help you realize that traffic jams are inevitable, not personal.
“Instead of wishing the situation were different or insisting the circumstances are unfair, focus on your reaction,” Morin says.
While you can't control the speed of traffic, she explains, you can control what you do while you're in your car, such as listening to music or tuning in to your favorite podcast. Morin says thinking about the facts and refocusing your attention can help reduce the intensity of negative emotions, and it aids with accepting that annoyances are just a normal part of life.
To help keep daily hassles in perspective, Aldwin offers this advice: “When you feel your stress levels rising, ask yourself: Is this really worth getting so upset over that I'm willing harm my health?” Chances are, it's not.