Mental Health

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

Microstresses are tiny stresses we encounter in routine, everyday interactions, such as being sent unclear emails.

Microstresses are tiny stresses we encounter in routine, everyday interactions, such as being sent unclear emails. Image: Unsplash/Ben White

Gabriela Riccardi
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Mental Health

  • Microstresses are tiny stresses we encounter in routine, everyday interactions, such as being sent unclear emails.
  • They are so small we hardly notice them, but they can impact us as they pile up.
  • We have to learn how to recognize them before we can work on counteracting them, according to the authors of a book called The Microstress Effect.

You might be able to recognize an obvious source of stress on the job: There’s the mercurial boss who rules your office, or the specter of staff cuts after a hard year. But some stresses are stealthier. They arrive the moment your well-liked supervisor tells you they’re shifting the priorities on a project. They compound as you call your team together about the change in plans. You feel them again when you open an unclear email asking about the project status, and again as you start scrambling through reply-alls to track down the updates you’re looking for.

There’s a name for these stress-slinging sleeper agents. Call them microstress.

Karen Dillon and Rob Cross, co-authors of the new book The Microstress Effect, define microstress as the accumulation of tiny triggers we encounter in routine, everyday interactions. These moments are often so brief that we hardly notice them—but when they pile up, they take a larger toll on our well-being. And the problem, Dillon and Cross write, is that our brains don’t register them as stress at all.

To understand how these small stressors slip by, look to how our minds typically process stress. Our cognitive system responds to pressures with a process called allostasis, which senses threats to our well-being and fires off fight-or-flight responses to disarm them. But because microstresses are fleeting, they pass under the radar.

“[Microstresses] literally don’t imprint on your frontal lobe in the same way,” says Dillon. They simply build in our system. We’re left with a feeling of overwhelm that we can’t find a cause for—one that can fast-track us to burnout.

So how do we cope with the stealthiest of stresses—and make them work for us? We can start by being able to recognize them in our days. Then, with a few counteractions, we can find coping and control.

To beat small stresses, learn how to identify them

Dillon and Cross say microstress comes in three common forms.

Capacity-draining microstresses hold us back from getting things done. “A good example is that you get an email late in the day asking for something a little vague. You have to go through threads and other emails to remind yourself what [you] need; you might have to email other people,” Dillon says. “Suddenly what looks like a relatively small request can potentially ruin your evening, and [maybe for] the other people you tap, too.”

Emotion-depleting microstresses wear on our energy. Say you’re feeling harried about a meeting in the morning and have an impatient interaction with your partner before you walk out the door. The moment of guilt you feel, Dillon says, sticks with you as a stressor. Moments might also manifest if you’re a manager who cares about your team; you’ll wonder if you’re supporting them enough through that tense deadline, or advocating for them when it counts. “You’re feeling the burden of them doing well,” she says. “That level of caring about [your team] is a microstress.”

Identity-challenging microstresses are the least detectable triggers, separating us from how we want to act. “Over time, these make you feel like you’re not you,” Dillon says. She offers the case of a salesperson who liked talking with their clients, but had a boss pushing them to make more aggressive calls. It wasn’t their style, she says, and the calls took a toll. Moments of dissonance between what you’re asked to do and who you are, too, are microstressors.

Have you read?

Rethink what you know about stress management

Common advice for stress management suggests we pick up positive practices that help deal with pressure—like meditation, mindfulness, or gratitude practices. But instead of adding positive routines into our day, we’d benefit more from getting rid of the difficult ones. For one, Dillon says, findings like the Gottman ratio suggest that negative interactions can have five times the impact on you as positive ones.

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Dillon suggests a method she calls the 2-2-2. Pick two microstresses that are routine for you and find a way to talk about them. Maybe you’re regularly covering for an unreliable teammate, or you’re often confused about a project’s direction because your boss is full of ideas. By having a conversation, you can look for solutions to improve them.

Then find two small stressors you might be putting on other people. The microstresses we cause have a boomerang effect. Perhaps you’re frequently unclear with a teammate about a shared task, and eventually they avoid collaborating with you. Ask how you can pull back on what you’re putting out.

Last, pick two that you’ll let go. Maybe, Dillon suggests, there are office politics going on that don’t really affect your day. “You’ll choose to rise above,” she says.

Try a “resilience network” to fight stress, anxiety, and burnout

“If I asked you what had gotten you through tough times in your life, you might say, I was really strong,” Dillon says. “But you’re more likely to say, My best friend was just my rock. She commiserated with me throughout everything; she came to my apartment at night with Chinese food.”

When we think about a stressful scenario we’ve tackled before, we can often identify a person who helped us get through it. But the problem, Dillon says, is that we’re too often relying on the same person.

Instead, she advocates for building a “resilience network,” or a wider group of people who can play different roles in helping you handle hard times. We all need an empathizer, but we also may need someone who can help you problem-solve to a path forward, or someone who pushes you out of self-pity. Instead of relying heavily on one or two close relationships, you can build support with casual friends or colleagues, and call on them when you’re feeling flat-out.

Small-scale stresses, Dillon says, don’t need wide-ranging fixes. By turning our attention to them in tiny ways, we can relieve ourselves of bigger burdens—and maybe find a little more balance than before.

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