There's a kind of stress our brains don't notice—and it's burning us out

The article discusses how some sources of stress are not always obvious, and how these types of stress can have negative impacts on our health.

There's a kind of stress our brains don't notice—and it's burning us out

Some sources of stress are obvious: the volatile boss who runs your office or the threat of layoffs after a difficult year. Some stress is more subtle. When your beloved supervisor informs you that they are changing the priority of a project, the stress begins to build. The feelings intensify when you tell your team about the new plans. They're there again when you receive an unclear email about the status of the project, and then again as you scramble through the reply-alls in order to find the information you need.

These stress-causing sleeper agents have a name. You can call them microstress.

Karen Dillon, Rob Cross and the co-authors The Microstress Effect define microstress to be the accumulation of small triggers that we experience in our daily interactions. They are so brief, we don't even notice. But when they accumulate, they have a greater impact on our health. Dillon and Cross say that the brain doesn't even register these moments as stressful.

Look at how we normally process stress to understand how small stressors can slip through. Allostasis is the process by which our cognitive system reacts to stress. It senses threats and triggers fight-or-flight reactions to neutralize them. Microstresses, however, are often fleeting and therefore go unnoticed.

Dillon says, "[Microstresses] don't literally imprint your frontal lobe the same way." They build up in our system. We are left with an overwhelming feeling that we cannot pinpoint the cause of, one that can lead to burnout.

How can we deal with these hidden stresses and make them work in our favor? To begin with, we can learn to recognize these stresses in our daily lives. We can then find control and coping with a few counteractions.

Dillon and Cross state that microstress can take three forms.

Microstresses drain our capacity and prevent us from getting anything done. "An example would be if you received an email at the end of the day that asked for something vague. Dillon says that you may have to send emails to other people to get a better idea of what you need. "What may seem like a small request could ruin your evening and that of the people you ask for."

Microstresses that drain our emotions sap our energy. Imagine you are feeling stressed about an early morning meeting and you have a hurried conversation with your partner. Dillon says that the guilt you feel will stay with you for a long time. You may also experience moments if, as a manager, you care about your team. You might wonder if they are supported enough during tense situations or if you have advocated for them. She says, "You feel the weight of their success." "This level of care about [your team] can be a microstress."

Microstresses that challenge our identity are the most difficult to detect, and they separate us from what we want. Dillon says that over time, microstresses can make us feel as if we are not ourselves. She gives the example of a salesperson that liked to talk with clients but was pushed by their boss to make aggressive calls. She says that the calls were not their style and they took a toll. Microstress can also be caused by moments of dissonance in what's asked and your personality.

Stress management advice suggests that we adopt positive practices to deal with stress, such as mindfulness or gratitude. We'd be better off eliminating the challenging routines from our days than adding in positive ones. Dillon says that studies like the Gottman Ratio suggest negative interactions have five times as much impact on us as positive interactions.

Dillon proposes a technique she calls the 2-2-2. Find a way to discuss two microstresses you experience regularly. You might be constantly covering for a teammate who is unreliable, or confused by the direction of a project because your boss has so many ideas. You can find solutions by having a discussion.

Find two little stressors that you may be putting onto other people. Microstresses can have a boomerang-like effect. You may be unclear with your teammate on a task and they stop collaborating. Ask yourself how you can reduce the amount of information you share.

Then, choose two you will let go. Dillon suggests that there may be office politics taking place which don't affect your day. She says, "You will choose to rise above."

Dillon: "If I were to ask you how you got through difficult times in your life you would probably say that you are very strong." "But it's more likely that you would say My best friend has been my rock." She was there for me through everything. She came to my apartment with Chinese food at night.

We can usually identify someone who helped us through a stressful situation. Dillon says that the problem is we rely on the same people too much.

She advocates building a "resilience group," which is a larger group of people that can help you deal with difficult times. All of us need someone to empathize with, but sometimes we need someone who will help us problem-solve and find a way forward or who will push you out from self-pity. You can rely on casual friends and colleagues for support instead of one or two close ones.

Dillon says that small-scale stress doesn't require a wide range of solutions. We can reduce our stress in small ways and find more balance by focusing on them.