People are living longer and healthier lives. At the same time, life has become more stressful. Stress, which is one of the most researched topics in psychology, can impact health and happiness in many ways. The effects of stress 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 that people experience can be divided into two categories: day-to-day stressors and major life stressors. The great majority of stressors develop from daily occurrences: loosing keys, sitting in traffic, running errands, being late, missing a meeting, and so forth. Any one of these, of course, is not as important as a major life event, such as marriage, illness, or retirement.
It is often the everyday stressors, the daily hassles, instead of 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 our 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. Exhausted by the endless attempts to figure out what needs to be done and how to do it. Despite my previous experience in Germany, I still needed to sort out where to go, how do I take the bus, the train, a taxi? Where and how do I purchase food? In fact, how do I open a bottle, where do I recycle the bottle, how do I manage the check in at the airport which has changed since I was here last year? How do I use the latest automated system for doing these sorts of things? Instead of feeling a sense of cultural competence about my abilities to understand how things work in Germany, I felt a continuous low level of anxiety that emerged from my confrontation with numerous day-to-day hassles — micro-stressors, as I started to call them.
I began to have conversations with friends and colleagues about their perceptions of everyday micro-stressors. All of my interlocutors eagerly discussed their own experiences with these frustrations.
The degree of frustration that both men and women experienced at home and abroad 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 these 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, the next day our life has changed dramatically, and we find ourselves 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. The ever-presence of daily micro-stressors challenges our capacity to feel a sense of competence in our cultural environment, which, in turn, diminishes our happiness.
The world will continue to change, which means that as soon as we have sorted out a way to open bottles, figure out our smart TVs, or learn to use Snapchat, there will be new apps, new ways of watching TV, a new computer. How does one find a comfort zone when there is continuous fluidity in most necessary tasks? Coping with micro-stressors can bring a debilitating exhaustion. What can we do? Should we curtail our lives? Should we remain in the same space, and keep our old outdated computers and cameras? These kind of choices, of course, also bring a form of alienation. One way of coping with these taken-for-granted frustrations is to talk about our challenges, to ask others how they manage. Such conversations require an openness to vulnerability, something that is difficult in today’s world. 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 about our strengths and competencies. This is especially true when on the road, while traveling in exciting and wonderful, but new and unfamiliar places. Travel is a great way to get out your comfort zone and understand the world in a new way. And yet, travel, if my recent trip to Germany is indicative, 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. This model is illustrative for our discussion of micro-stressors. 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, an environment which does not present any challenges, leads to a reduction in skills and competencies. Lacking environmental challenges can also lead to reduced feelings of control and well-being. Living in a social world that is challenging and to some extend exceeds our abilities tends to result in positive adaptation. We usually 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 stressors from our lives. 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.