Find Relief From the Stress of Life's Daily Hassles

How to let go of the small stuff and start living

Posted Oct 15, 2014

Daily Hassles are as Toxic to Our Health as Major Life Events

These types of minor irritants are oh so familiar and are constantly triggering your stress response.  Research shows that daily hassles affect our longer-term health and mood. In fact, they may take more toll on out health than even major life events like bereavement

A research study followed more than 1,200 older male veterans for up to 20 years. The researchers found that older men who experienced a high rate of daily hassles were at an increased risk of dying early, just as if they’d experienced more serious life events, like losing a loved one (Aldwin et al., 2014)..The lead study author, Carolyn Aldwin, Direcor of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University described her findings as follows:

"People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn't find daily life very stressful,"

Why do daily hassles have such a large impact on our health? One reason is their frequency. Major life disruptions don't happen that often, whereas we encounter small obstructions to our life's progress on a daily basis. In a major national survey that asked people about the moments in the day when they felt most unhappy and dissatisfied with life, "sitting in traffic." was the daily event rated as most miserable. When we experience hassles most days of our lives, eventually we get sensitized and start overreacting to them.  Road rage incidents are now a fact of daily life and many married couples fight repeatedly about who picks up the mess or does the dishes. 

 Below are some more reasons why we find daily hassles to be so stressful:

We Perceive Them as Unnecessary or Due to Incompetence

Daily hassles block us from important goals and you see the interference as unnecessary or due to incompetence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck behind all the slow drivers on the one-lane roads that take me to work.  I have to watch the way I think about these things.  If I start thinking “Why is this person going so slowly?  Are they stupid?” or “I could have made that traffic light if they had only moved a bit and now because of them I’m stuck for another 5 minutes,” then I’ve taken a big turn onto the stress highway. I know my clients don’t want to see a therapist who is red in the face and muttering under her breath about incompetent drivers, so say nothing about the long-term effects on my health!

 They Are Always There

Another reason that daily hassles can turn into a major source of stress is when they accumulate. You don’t have enough time to recover from one problem before another rears its head.  Our brains and bodies are biologically wired to deal with acute stresses, like a robber chasing us, followed by a period of recovery, not a constant barrage of stressors with no end in sight!

I have a great example of stressor accumulation from my own life. Because housing is so expensive in the Bay area, most people have no choice but to move into houses built in the 1950’s in various states of disrepair. In the past few years, I’ve had to spend hundreds of hours negotiating with landlords to pay for basic repairs, dealing with broken dishwashers and washing machines, rat droppings and hornets nests, raccoons and gophers, wiring that goes out in a storm, sewers backing up, broken pipes, leaky toilets, and a landlord we had to take to small claims court.  I now totally understand why some studies of stress find that “daily hassles” have more adverse effect on health than even major life events.  When there is no time to recover from one problem before the next one hits, your system starts wearing down from the stress.

 We May Already Be Worn Out From Major Life Events

A third reason daily hassles can turn into major stress is when you are already stressed by a major life event, and so you have fewer resources left to deal with the unexpected stuff that goes wrong or the day to day turmoil of family life. Many high-functioning executives deal skillfully with major crises at work, only to have their marriages threatened by their negative emotional reactivity and noncooperation at home.  It’s as if the continual day to day problems and logistics of the household send them over the threshold of stress tolerance when piled on top of the work demands.

What You Can Do About It?

There are some relatively simple things you can do to reduce the effect of daily hassles on your health and wellbeing.  You can either reduce your exposure or refocus your attention so as to reduce their distressing impact. The strategies below should help you to de-stress. 

Plan in Advance 

One commonsense strategy is to anticipate your daily stressors and take proactive steps to minimize your exposure.  For example, you could wake up an hour earlier to get on the road before the major traffic hits, if you have a long commute.  If you hate having a messy house, develop a schedule of chores for your household and keep yourself (and your family) accountable. 

 Change Your Thinking

 In Aldwin's study, it wasn;t just the number of hassles that made the difference but how people perceived them.  Focusing on daily hassles and ruminating about them can increase our negativity and feelings of helpless.  When you attribute someone's behavior to incompetence, bad character,  or deliberate intent to harm you, you get angrier.  So try to think of more benign causes for behavior that blocks or irritates you. Maybe the driver in front of you is elderly or distracted by her own life stress. Maybe they're being extra-cautious about obeying the speed limit. Perhaps your adolescent didn't pick up their clothes for the umpteenth time because they don't have an adult brain yet and are more easily distracted..

Speak Up For Yourself   

You may be experiencing a high number of daily hassles because other people don't do their share of the work.  This can lead to a build up of resentment that sours marriages and relationships with co-workers.  If your needs aren't being met or you feel you're being treated unfairly, start advocating for yourself.  If you use "I" statements and focus on your own unmet needs, rather than making demands or making negative judgments about character, you're likely to be more successful.  If there's still no change, decide what you're going to do to take care of yourself and stick to   

Practice Stress-Management

 Develop a daily practice that helps you find inner peace so you are less affected by life's day to day ups and downs. Doing yoga or aerobic exercise, walking in nature, doing creative work, such as art or writing, or developing a meditation practice can enhance your body's relaxation response that puts the brakes on stressful arousal. 

 Change the Moment 

You can change the moment by deliberately changing your focus of attention.  One good strategy is to notice the judgments your mind is making and deliberately move into a "notice and describe" mindset instead.  What are you feeling in your body?  Can you give a name to the emotion that is coming up?  What needs are arising?  Is there anything you want to let go of, such as bodily tension or attachment to an outcome?  These questions encourage a more compassionate relationship with yourself, rather than a purely external focus. 

Practice Opposite Action 

Opposite action is a technique from Dialectical Behavior Therapy that can help move you through a bad moment. Whatever negative emotions you are feeling, deliberately recall a time when you felt the opposite. If you are anxious, recall a time you felt free and peaceful. If you are angry, recall a time ywhen ou felt loving and compassionate.  Try to sink into that opposite emotion and recreate it in your body.  This practice an remind you that emotions are changing events in your bodyand mind  and helps you to take a briader view of your life and capacities.      


About The Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Practicing Psychologist and LIfe Coach in the San Francisco Bay area and author of an upcoming book on stress and neuroscience.. In her previous role as a Psychology Professotr, she published more than 50 scholarly works and presented her research at national and international conferences. Dr. Greenberg is often quoted in national media on topics of motivationpositive psychologymindfulness,dealing with your inner critic, and coping with stress at work and in relationships.  She offers in-person psychotherapy and life coaching via distance technologies. Dr. Greenberg also oconducts workshops for organizations. 

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