If you’re in shock after the death of a loved one, going through a messy divorce, or being treated for a serious illness, the fact that you’re under a lot of stress will come as no surprise to anyone. If during such a period you have frequent headaches or stomachaches, have trouble sleeping, or end up gaining or losing a lot of weight, the root cause will also be quite obvious.

Yet many people who feel under immense pressure face no obvious major culprit. They might not even be able to figure out why they’re so stressed out, despite the unshakable feeling that they’re barely holding things together. What is going on?

In their new book, The microstress effect, Rob Cross and Karen Dillon say that small aggravations can have a major impact on your mental and physical well-being. These stressors are, by definition, microscopic, so they usually go unnoticed or are quickly ignored. But if you encounter dozens of micro-stressors a day, the cumulative impact can be catastrophic.

“Imagine wind eroding a mountain,” says Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurologist and researcher at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, in The microstress effect. “It’s not the same as a big explosion of TNT blowing a hole in a mountain. But over time, if the wind never stops, it has the potential to slowly reduce an entire mountain to a knot.

Although microstress is pervasive and dangerous, it is hardly insurmountable, say Cross and Dillon. Fortune spoke with Dillon to learn more about the importance of microstress and how to fortify yourself against it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: What exactly is microstress and why is it important?

Karen Dillon: Microstresses are tiny moments of stress caused by routine interactions with other people in your personal and professional life that are so routine that you barely notice them. I think a good metaphor is a cup of tea that you keep adding more to. You add a little more, a little more, and it kind of holds at the top – until you add another drop, and it overflows. This is the effect of microstress.

While researching our book, we talked to neuroscientists and learned that because these moments are so quick and routine, they hardly imprint on the frontal lobe of your brain, so you don’t focus on them and you may not remember them later. . Yet they still have the potential to cause physiological changes, such as increases in heart rate and respiration. You can get to the end of the day and be really fried, but you can’t pinpoint any reason.

Who is sensitive to microstress?

Everyone faces microstresses, but the idea for our book came specifically from interviews that Rob (Cross) had with high performers, who were identified as top performers by their organizations. We eventually spoke with hundreds of them, and learned that many of these people were hanging by a thread, but it was almost never because a macro stressor had derailed them. Instead, it was the accumulation of those tiny little things they didn’t even think about.

Where does microstress come from?

Microstress, as we define it, is caused by people you are close to personally and professionally. It’s not that they’re bad, toxic people; it’s just that you have so many interactions with them throughout your day and the relationship is of some importance to you.

As soon as you engage with coworkers or family, there is an opportunity for microstress. It can start as soon as you wake up: you turn on your phone and someone emailed you late last night asking you to do something, and you freak out because you wish you had read the email. and fixed the problem last night. Meanwhile, you’re rushing out, and you have kids who are going to be late for school, so you exchange a few dry words with them. Then you’re at work and you get a confused note from your manager.

Nothing terrible happened, but it all eats at you. And at the end of the day, your mug is bursting with microstress. You might make fun of someone, even those you respect and love, for being pushed over the edge. Or you feel so exhausted that you can’t muster the energy to do something you would otherwise enjoy.

You noted that most people don’t notice individual micro-stresses. Should they? And if yes, how ?

In our book, we discuss 14 different types of microstress and offer different suggestions for identifying and mitigating each type. One thing you can try is to pay attention to your inner voice. If you have an interaction with someone and immediately have a bunch of questions that you don’t voice, or leave feeling vaguely annoyed, that’s an indication that something is wrong.

In the workplace, a common source of microstress is misaligned priorities. In the past, you worked with the same group of people for a long time and knew them quite well. Now, we’re likely to collaborate on many different projects and teams, which means you may not know or fully trust your colleagues. You don’t know how much you can rely on them yet, so you’re working defensively instead.

One way to deal with this lack of trust is to make an effort to improve communication. At a minimum, I would recommend taking five minutes before the end of a meeting to recap what was agreed and write it down on a whiteboard or type it into an email you send to everyone. Just being very clear — I’ll do that by then — can take some of the pressure off.

What about meditation, yoga or other anti-stress techniques? Do they fight microstress?

These are good things, but they just make you stronger to deal with more and more. We identified a small subset of high performers that we surveyed and considered to be the 10%. These people had as much microstress in their lives as any of the other high performing artists, but they seemed to be doing better than the rest because they were somehow able to rise above it; they had decided not to leave certain things under their skin.

They were also very good at finding purpose and connection. Some have set aside specific time for their interests and friendships; an older neurosurgeon told us he started playing in a weekend rock band with young people in their twenties. Others have found purpose in the smallest of moments. A woman told us of queuing at a pharmacy at the height of the pandemic near an elderly man who didn’t know how to book an appointment for a vaccine online. She sat with him for 10 minutes and helped him make an appointment. Just taking a few minutes out of her day to connect with another human being in a kind and meaningful way had a big impact on her.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *