Do you have a “cupboard of no return”? Many use a cardboard box, wardrobe shelf or loft space for all the things that we don’t want to deal with in the present moment. Common items in storage include unwanted letters, junk electronics, business cards, stationary items, device chargers and pieces from board games. These clutters in our cupboard, whether in our minds or environment, are both the result of stress and also have the potential to trigger stress. The big question is how do we manage our stress triggers through new habits, routines and behavioural cues.
Why do we feel stress ?
A simplified, yet useful way to think about stress, takes us back to recognising why our stress response evolved in the first place. In our evolution when we predicted an imminent threat, for example the sound of a wild animal, then a series of biological and physiological changes got triggered. The misunderstood “stress response hormone” cortisol then activates our minds to reach a heightened state of alertness and pours sugar into our bloodstream so that we can run faster to safety. However, when our stress triggers become long-standing, a helpful evolved response can turn harmful.
What are micro stress doses and how does it impact us ?
The World Health Organisation has labelled stress as the "health epidemic of the 21st Century”. Many seemingly unrelated symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, mental health, poor memory, low libido, gut problems, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes all have stress as a key driver. In his book The Stress Solution, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee (physician and podcast host) highlights that many of us tend to ignore micro stressors which leave a lot of loose ends untied.
Around 80 to 90% of what GPs see every day in their consultations with patients is related to stress — Dr. Rangan Chatterjee
Micro stress doses (or MSDs) are little hits of stress which can from the growing list of emails that we still need to respond to, notifications about payments due on the energy bill, or guilt we may feel for not checking in with our elderly parents. Focussing solely on the macro stressors in our lives, we forget entirely about all the little things that trigger us to feel stressed in the first place. While in isolation we can handle each micro stress dose, as they mount up, they take us nearer to reaching our individual stress thresholds.
#1. Work: Time to ditch the to-do list?
Have you ever met someone who runs their day with a to-do list and actually completes all their tasks on the list? Our to-do lists typically grow longer instead of shorter and at the end of each day, we simply move things to be done ‘tomorrow’. In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal (author) highlights how this creates harmful self-stereotypes and perpetuates blame for our inability to accomplish goals. These incomplete to-do lists can form cluttered cupboards in our minds and trigger micro stress doses throughout the day.
Nir Eyal recommends using what behavioural scientists refer to as “implementation intention”. Basically this involves deciding what we’re going to do, how we can achieve things and when we’re going to do it. Instead of measuring our accomplishments with how many things we check off a list, try the schedule builder. The practice is all about allocating time blocks in your weekly schedule for work, play and relationships in your life that really matter.
#2. Play: The waking trance of “deep play”
The universality of play suggests that it is a pattern of behaviour passed down from our ancestors. Play is widespread across cultures, because it is fundamental to enable solving problems, learning social rules, helping test limits and developing strategies for survival. A more ecstatic form of deep play observed only in humans involves “a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder.” The evolutionary purpose behind this is explained beautifully in Deep Play by Diane Ackerman (poet, essayist, and naturalist). Below is an excerpt from the book.
“When one enters the realm of deep play, the sacred playground where only the present moment matters, one’s history and future vanish. One doesn’t remember one’s past, needs, expectations, worries, real or imaginary sins. The deep-play world is fresh, wholly absorbing, and full of its own unique wisdom and demands. Being able to temporarily step outside of normal life—while keeping one’s senses alert — is indeed like being reborn. To erase all memories and yearnings — to be vigorously alive without self-awareness — can provide a brief return to innocence.”
#3. Relationships: Small commitments to change the story
Many of us think of the concept of “self” as separate from our relationships with others. Being wired for connections, humans are social creatures that do not cope well alone. When our relationships start to fall apart, it can trigger a steady undercurrent of micro stressors in our daily lives. Adopting a relational thinking framework, it recognises that we only know ourselves through the lens of others. True self awareness is about paying attention to the reciprocal relationships that we share with people around us.
The quality of our relationships impact the quality of our lives - Esther Perel (author and therapist)
One of the leading thinkers on modern relationships, Esther Perel highlights the importance of listening in order to give the other person’s perspective validity, whether we agree with them or not. She emphasises that we should not leave play, pleasure, joy and fun for the end as they are incredibly important experiences especially in the midst of crisis. While we may perpetually wait for others to change, making small commitments to improve our relationships can influence the stories others experience and this in turn shapes the stories of our own lives.
Bottom line. Our stress response did not evolve for work, play and relationships in the modern world. Many unrelated symptoms in our individual and community health have stress as the underlying cause; influencing our bodies, minds and behaviours. While we need to tackle the macro stressors in our community, we can start with redesigning our own lives to overcome the micro stressors that impact us every day.
"Our bodies change our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes." — Amy Cuddy, social psychologist at Harvard University