Even small stresses can hurt your health

But experts say your attitude can make a big difference, buffer the negative impacts

Being worn down by chronic stress can make us more vulnerable to day-to-day irritations, work problems or interpersonal conflicts, which can cause us to overreact.
Being worn down by chronic stress can make us more vulnerable to day-to-day irritations, work problems or interpersonal conflicts, which can cause us to overreact.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

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, and other factors - can harm health, too, and even shorten lifespans.

One traffic jam a week is not going to kill you, of course. Psychologists say it is the non-stop 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 do not 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 of heart disease, explains Professor Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Centre for Healthy Ageing 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 is not necessarily the exposure to the continuous streams of minor stressors but how we react that can take a toll.

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 the subjects' 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 of heart disease and death.)

The researchers found that it was not the number of stressful events but how a person perceived his stress and then reacted to it emotionally that was associated with lower HRV.

In a 2014 study of 1,300 men, Prof 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 items such 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," Prof Aldwin says.

Learning to roll with the punches, she adds, can protect you.

While it is normal to lose one's cool from time to time, some people may be hardwired to overreact, Prof Aldwin says. "People who are higher in neuroticism, meaning those who have strong emotions that are easy aroused, are much more likely to get upset over minor problems."

She 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. For instance, 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.

Psychologist Dr Greenberg says that being worn down by chronic stress can also make us more vulnerable to day-to-day irritations, work problems or interpersonal conflicts, which can cause us to overreact.

When we are chronically stressed and on high-alert, she says, "our fight, flight or freeze response never turns off, we get a build-up 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.

Recognising and then managing your physiological response, by excusing yourself from the situation or taking some deep breaths, can stop an angry escalation, she adds.

In a 2016 study published 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 (socialising with friends, engaging in a hobby) over the course of six days and then record daily progress towards 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 did not get in the way of their daily goals.

Researcher Vanessa Patrick said: "Being mindful of small, everyday pleasures, which are readily accessible to most people at little or no cost, can help dampen the impact... and contribute greatly to our happiness and well-being."

Instead of personalising a problem - as in "Why do these things always happen to me?" - it is helpful to view annoyances through a fact-based lens, says Ms 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 realise that traffic jams are inevitable, not personal. "Instead of wishing the situation were different or insisting the circumstances are unfair, focus on your reaction."

While you can't control the speed of traffic, she says, you can control what you do while you are in your car, such as listening to music or tuning in to your favourite podcast.

Ms 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, Prof Aldwin offers this advice: "When you feel your stress levels rising, ask yourself: Is this really worth getting so upset over that I am willing harm my health?"

Chances are, it is not.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2018, with the headline 'Even small stresses can hurt your health'. Subscribe