People are living longer, healthier lives. At the same time, life has become more stressful. Stress can impact health and happiness in many ways, and the effects can be devastating. When there is a real or perceived threat in our environment, stress affects us mentally, physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. Something is considered stressful when the demands of a task exceed our capacities. The stressors we experience can generally be divided into two categories—day-to-day stressors and major life stressors. The great majority develop from daily occurrences—losing keys, sitting in traffic, running errands, being late, missing a meeting, etc. Any one of these, of course, is not as important as a major life event, such as marriage, illness, or retirement.
And yet it is often the everyday stressors or daily hassles, and not the major life events, that have the most devastating effect on our health and happiness. Daily stressors wear us down. They affect our sense of worth and self-image. I recently returned from a two-week trip to Germany, a country where I lived as a child. I speak the language. I am somewhat familiar with the culture, and yet I found myself exhausted at the end of each day by the endless attempts to figure out what needed to be done and how to do it. Despite my previous experience in Germany, I still needed to sort out where to go, and how to take the bus, train, or taxi. Where and how do I purchase food? Where do I recycle a bottle, how do I manage the check in at the airport? How do I use the latest automated systems? Instead of feeling cultural competence about my abilities to understand how things work in Germany, I felt a continuous low level of anxiety emerging from my confrontation with numerous day-to-day hassles — micro-stressors, as I called them.
I began to have conversations with friends and colleagues about their perceptions of micro-stressors. All of my interlocutors eagerly discussed their own experiences:
The degree of frustration men and women experienced astounded me. For older adults, these micro-stressors are more than minor frustrations; they threaten one’s overall self-image. They create vulnerability, anxiety, and feelings of loss and marginalization. It is clear that feelings of vulnerability which emerge from our confrontation with daily micro-stressors are not easily discussed. Major life events can be expected or unexpected: Everyone is aware of the possibility that one’s life can change in an instant. One day we are happily cooking a meal or taking a walk, and the next our life has changed dramatically, leaving us faced with unexpected and stressful circumstances with which we must come to terms.
How do we respond to lives filled with stress? More than 70 years ago, pioneering stress researcher Hans Selye said that when faced with a stressor, we experience alarm. If the stressors continue, we resist. In the end, we ultimately adapt to or become exhausted by stress. When we face a bevy of micro-stressors, however, there is little possibility of adaptation. Ever-present daily micro-stressors challenge our capacity to feel competent in our cultural environment, which diminishes our happiness.
The world will continue to change. As soon as we have sorted out a way to use our TVs, or Snapchat, there will be new apps and devices. How does one find a comfort zone? Should we curtail our lives? Should we remain in the same space, and keep our old outdated computers? These choices bring a form of alienation. One way of coping with taken-for-granted frustrations is to talk about them, to ask others how they manage. Such conversations require an openness to vulnerability, which can be difficult. I began to talk to friends and colleagues who shared my frustrations; we told stories, laughed, and shared strategies. Through conversation, we felt a connection, a shared sense of attempting to cope with the constancy of change.
When micro-stressors overwhelm us, it is easy forget our strengths. This is especially true away from home. Travel is a great way to get out your comfort zone and understand the world in a new way. And yet, if my recent trip to Germany is indicative, travel can also be stressful and frustrating. The amount of stress we can tolerate effectively, of course, varies with time and place, our personal and social resources, and our health and well-being.
Social scientists focusing on the relationship between stress and well-being in later life have written about the Environmental Fit Model. In this model, the fit of an individual’s sense of competence is relative to the demands of the environment. Studies have found that an overly compensating environment, one which does not present challenges, leads to a reduction in skills and competencies. But lacking environmental challenges can lead to reduced feelings of control and well-being. Living in a social world that is challenging and to some extent exceeds our abilities tends to result in positive adaptation. We can develop a positive sense of self and feelings of competence from meeting and mastering challenges. A positive “fit” occurs when there is a congruence between our ability and our environment.
Given the constant pace of change in the world, felicity is the key to managing micro-stressors. It is not possible to eliminate them from our lives, but if we share our stress, laugh about our frustrations, and develop adaptation techniques such as time management, relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness, we can prevent micro-stressors from diminishing our well-being.