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Don't Let Life's Hassles Get You Down

Everyday hassles can cause more stress than you realize.

Life presents us with many challenges that test our ability to cope. If you or a loved one has faced a major personal loss or lived through a disaster, you know that these major life events take their toll. What you might not realize is how much your overall well-being and health are affected by the little annoyances and frustrations of everyday life. Psychologists Richard Folkman and Susan Lazarus used the term "hassles" to refer to these background stresses. Their large-scale study on coping carried out in the late 1970s showed definitively that the more the number of hassles people faced, the poorer their adaptation.

Why are hassles so harmful to our health? Unlike cataclysmic events or death of people close to us, they don't directly threaten our lives and don't force us to confront a personal loss. Instead, they raise our arousal levels bit by bit. Hassles erode our well-being by triggering small, but chronic, fight-or-flight responses.

Let's take a closer look at the mini-stressors that qualify as hassles. Here's a list of the common daily annoyances that show up on some of the most popular hassles scales.

1. Misplacing or losing things

2. Someone owes you money.

3. Dislike co-workers

4. Unexpected company

5. Preparing meals

6. Auto maintenance

7. Too many things to do

8. Legal problems

9. The weather

10. Silly practical mistakes

11. Shopping responsibilities

12. Traffic

13. Rising prices of common goods

14. Not enough money for food

15. Difficult customers/clients

How many of these common situations can you identify with? If you were taking an actual hassles questionnaire such as this one, you'd be asked to rate these plus another 100 or so common situations on a 3-point severity scale. If your severity scale is more than twice the number of hassles, you may be experiencing unhealthy levels that might require your seeking help.

Let's examine why these common situations can be so stressful. Everyone reacts differently to the same situation, but some of these situations present common challenges. Making mistakes and losing things are not only annoying and time-wasting, but threaten our sense of competence. We also begin to worry that if we made a mistake in the past, we'll make more in the future.

Other hassles threaten our sense of control. Traffic, the weather, auto problems, rising prices, and too many things to do are situations that make us realize that there are forces outside of ourselves that keep us from achieving our goals. We're hassled because we realize that there's nothing we can do to change them.

Then there are the situations that persist over time and present us with continuous threats to our ability to meet our basic needs. The most common is not having enough money or time to spend with family. Hassles are especially likely to accumulate during holiday seasons. Apart from your normal daily responsibilities you now must find more time in your busy day to shop, cook, and visit with family. Add to these problems with traffic, weather, and money, and you've got the perfect storm for a holiday meltdown.

Finally, relationship problems present their own share of hassles. Co-workers, difficult customers, and people who owe you money threaten that part of our well-being that comes from pleasant relationships with other people.

What are the dangers of hassles to your well-being? In one study of over 160 undergraduates, Boston University psychologist Kevin McIntyre and his colleagues found that the more a hassle evoked a negative emotion, the greater the perceived stress. In other words, if you become sad, angry, or frustrated, the hassle will make you feel more stressed. No matter where it comes from, stress can hurt you, especially if your negative emotions get the better of you.

You may be convinced by now that hassles are indeed an important challenge to your well-being, but what about the claim that they can be as bad, or worse, than a calamity or personal stress? Catastrophes create traumatic reactions, but they also create hassles. You may escape from a fire, tornado, hurricane, or accident with your life but none of the supports that keep your life going. Aside from your possessions being damaged or destroyed, you need to replace all of your lost papers and documents. Even something as trivial as getting back your medications can mean hours if not weeks of stress. You now have to deal with all sorts of agencies, from your insurance company to the government to try to get your life back in order. There may be legal issues. Meanwhile, you may still have to go to work and/or care for your family.

Regardless of their cause, how can you cope successfully with hassles? The key is to manage your emotions. As the McIntyre study showed, it's not the hassles per se but the negative emotions from hassles that lead to distress. You may not be able to change the situation that caused your stress, but you can change your reactions. Looking for the silver lining, seeing humor in your predicament, or regarding the situation as a test of your faith are all ways that you can manage your emotions and get through even the most stressful hassle.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging and please check out my website, where you can get additional information, self-tests, and links.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., 2011

Click here for the full scale and scoring of the hassles scale.

McIntyre, K. P., Korn, J. H., & Matsuo, H. (2008). Sweating the small stuff: How different types of hassles result in the experience of stress. Stress And Health: Journal Of The International Society For The Investigation Of Stress, 24(5), 383-392. doi:10.1002/smi.1190

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