Perpetually Exhausted? There’s a Reason for That
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Perpetually Exhausted? There’s a Reason for That
You all know that I love to explore the intricacies of work psychology. What makes us tick? Which cognitive distortions stop us from being our best? How can we embrace self-integrity and discipline? And – on the topic of today's newsletter – what makes us fall flat from exhaustion?
When I stumbled across article upon article about 'microstress,' a concept shedding light on the main cause of high-achiever burnout, I didn't wait long before diving headfirst into research.
Fast Company is talking about it. HBR is talking about it. Fortune, QZ, and the WSJ are all grabbing onto the latest revelation in burnout psychology. So, what's the deal?
Microstress is Not What You'd Assume
"There is a force in our everyday lives that we aren’t aware of—and it’s so powerful it threatens to derail otherwise promising careers and lives: microstress."
Pretty alarming statement to kick things off. That's from the website of Rob Cross, one of two groundbreaking authors who just released their book, 'The Microstress Effect.' Rob Cross and Karen Dillon teamed up alongside HBR to explore the effects of small, seemingly insignificant stressors that build up over time.
Upon first hearing the word, I assumed they were talking about residual stress; an email inbox that grows more and more cluttered over time, or a to-do list that you keep in your head instead of writing it down on paper.
But microstress is something much more nuanced and complex. It's an insidious toxin lurking in your own backyard – and it comes from interacting with those closest to you.
Small Interactions, Big Consequences
Here's how Cross and Dillon define microstress:
"Microstress: tiny moments of stress triggered by people in our personal or professional lives; stresses so routine that we barely register them, but whose cumulative toll is debilitating."
To put it simply, it's the stress that comes from awkwardness, tension, fear of disappointment, frustration, sorrow, and other personable emotions born out of familiar interaction. To the best of my understanding, I'll list a few examples:
One of your coworkers gives you a task that slips your mind, and you have to tell them you've neglected their request. They are the kindest and most empathetic person you know, and so there's no consequence – but you know it's still disappointed them. You worry this will result in a lack of trust moving forward – and that's the microstress.
You receive a text message from someone you've been slowly growing apart from, and you don't open the message for fear of not knowing what to say. You don't want to hurt their feelings, but you also don't want to let them down. So you leave the message unanswered – and that open-ended decision becomes a microstressor.
Your parents are getting older, and you are in the prime of your life – so you are torn between spending time with them and nurturing your own career. That lingering guilt is one of the most underrated microstressors out there. It's worsened by the fact that your parents say, 'go and live your life, don't worry about us!' almost as often as they say, 'we miss you.'
The more I think about this, the more examples come to mind. I'm suddenly all too aware of the microstressors I've been living with for years.
Is Microstress Really a New Concept?
While writing this newsletter, I've been scratching my head and thinking – haven't we talked about this before in some capacity? Is microstress really new? Or has it just been repackaged?
With some digging, I found the work of Dr. Rangan Chatterjee on 'MSD' – micro-stress doses – which is almost, but not quite, describing the same thing.
"I call such individual portions of stress Micro Stress Doses, or MSDs...they're just the standard stresses that come with being a husband, a wife, a parent, a boss, or an employee..."
Dr. Chatterjee takes a more general approach to microstressors, describing them as the little bouts of stress that come up in our day-to-day. He references stressors like watching the news, being woken up by an alarm, receiving bills, and having family arguments.
While there's definitely merit to his theses – and he started an incredibly important conversation – I do feel as though Cross and Dillon are breaking new ground by digging deeper into invisible stressors. We need to recognize that stress doesn't always have an obvious source.
A Mountain, TNT, and Erosive Winds
I'm a fan of well-placed metaphors. There's a particularly good one used in The Microstress Effect to explain how microstressors impact us over time. It comes from behavioral neurologist Joel Salinas (I won't explain it nearly as eloquently, but I'll try my best).
Imagine you are a mountain. Every now and again, a group of miners arrives to blow pieces of you apart with TNT. You can think of the TNT as regular stressful events – being laid off from work, having a fight with your partner, or having to move cities.
But at the same time as these miners come in and blow away chunks of you with TNT, erosive winds are blowing across the mountain, slowly but surely wearing down your strength and resilience. These winds are the microstressors; their effects are invisible, but over time, they can be as drastic as the TNT.
Implications for Your Wellbeing
What makes these stressors so deadly is their ability to fade into the background. Our usual stress response system, allostasis, isn't triggered by a microstressor – so our homeostasis is directly threatened. They're so difficult to actually pinpoint or even notice; by the time they loom large enough to recognize, they've done some real damage.
By damage, I mean:
Damage to relationships with the people closest to you
An increase in blood pressure and heart rate
Hormonal and metabolic changes
A shrunken frontal lobe (responsible for working memory)
Unexplained stress, brain fog, and overwhelm
If you find yourself asking, 'Why am I always so goddamn tired after a good night's rest?' microstressors could well and truly be your answer. They're pervasive yet silent, deadly yet invisible to the average person.
If Microstress is 'Unavoidable', What's To Do?
Great question. If you dig into any of the articles about this floating around online (which I highly recommend), you'll notice a common thread – microstress is an inevitable part of life. To be human is to be stressed in some capacity.
But if that's true... what's the point of even thinking about microstressors?
Dillon and Cross spend a lot of time covering identification and mitigation techniques in their book, but my takeaway from it all was simple: awareness. By recognizing and understanding the insidious nature of these stress-inducing events, we can start to build our resilience against them.
For example: if you know that the team you're a part of at work causes you a lot of stress because instructions are never given clearly enough, you can raise the point in a meeting (in an appropriate way, of course) and get everyone on the same page.
Or if you constantly worry about whether you're spending enough time with your elderly parents, you can work up the courage to be open about it with them.
The aim isn't to eliminate microstressors from your life (which is practically impossible) but rather to understand their effects and make small changes to alleviate those effects. And it all starts with knowing what your stressors are.
How To Identify Your Microstressors
There's no shortcut to self-awareness. It takes a lot of time and intentional energy to recognize the moments of stress that exist in your life – but to start with, try to figure out whether you're a victim of undue microstress in the first place.
In their Fast Company article, Dillon and Cross identify a few classic tells:
You exist in a state of reactivity rather than proactivity
Life feels like a constant juggle where you try (and fail) to fit everything in
Every day begins with one wheel off the rails
Snapping and overreacting are not uncommon behaviors for you
Certain friendships and activities you used to love have faded into obscurity
Sound familiar? You're on your way to a better understanding of the microstressors in your life.
If you commit to sitting down for a few intervals of intentional self-assessment – perhaps taking notes on a physical mind map – you can tap into the areas of your life that are causing you constant stress.
Try splitting the map into segments: love life, family, friends, work, mental health, physical wellbeing, etcetera. It’s remarkably easy to start jotting stressors down when you have an awareness of what you’re looking for.
Microstressors are an unavoidable part of life, but they don't have to bring you down. By approaching microstressors with intention and self-awareness, you can start to build the resilience necessary to lead a more relaxed lifestyle.
I hope this has brought some important microstressors to your awareness – but if not, I'm glad to at least contribute to the growing conversation around this fascinating topic. It's time we started paying a lot more attention to the small stuff!
If you haven't read The Microstress Effect yet, I highly recommend it; there are also a bunch of articles on the subject that you'll retrieve with a quick Google search.
Happy reading! Thanks for tuning in.
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