Sweating the Small Stuff

--Adapted from eDiets (6th July, 2006)

Every day may bring a test of nerves: rude sales clerks, stubborn co-workers, arguments at home. While these trivial daily pressures might seem insignificant in comparison to major life traumas like surgery or a death in the family, it turns out that the small stuff actually may be the most important source of stress in our lives. Daily frustrations, while minor, can snowball into big problems.

Many of us blame our work lives for the lion’s share of stress. But research shows that job pressure is not the biggest offender. A recent study in which 1,500 people tracked their daily stresses for eight days found that the biggest contributors by far are quarrels and conflicts with intimates.

That makes sense, says study author David M. Almeida of the Pennsylvania State University: “The people in our lives mean more to us than things or work.” As a result, we aren’t as able to brush off arguments with parents, children, spouses, or close friends as readily as we can other minor irritants like traffic jams or the grocery store running out of bread.

Both men and women agree that interpersonal tension is the most frequent source of stress. But they differ on what they rank as their second biggest frustration. For men, school or work creates big headaches -- they find themselves fretting over promotions and deadlines. Women tend to reserve that level of anxiety for the people in their lives they care about -- relatives or close friends.

We really are creatures of habit: The disruption of daily routines was named as the most common daily source of stress. Financial worries, physical danger and health concerns were also frequent worries, but all of these were much less common.

Stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease, weaken the immune system and maybe even fast-forward the aging process. It also affects your daily mood: When stress is low, people have a sunnier outlook overall, a more positive view of work, and feel better physically.

Almeida is also interested in who is most vulnerable to stress and who bounces back the fastest. He’s found that older people are less stressed out than young people or the middle-aged, although it’s not entirely clear why.

It’s possible that with children grown and work coming to an end, retirement-aged people simply may not have as many sources of stress. Young people, on the other hand, not only report more stresses but have greater difficulty dealing with them.

It’s important to remember that stress isn’t always bad, points out Almeida. “If we didn’t get upset about problems, they wouldn’t ever get solved. We just have to figure out how to react to stress so it doesn’t make us unhealthy.” Learning how to cope and problem solve will help that aim.

“People deal with problems in one of two ways,” observes Almeida. “They focus on how they feel about a stressor, or they figure out a way to solve the problem. If a problem can’t be solved, they learn how to cope.”

Simply focusing on your feelings about the problem isn’t very helpful. But recognizing what has the power to stress you out is important: you have to know what raises your blood pressure before you can address it. --


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