“I feel as if I'm on the moon listening to the air hiss out of my spacesuit, and I can't find the rip.” - Paige Lewis
I recently talked to a very competent leader, who told me she related to this quote. Maya delivered fantastic results for her company, delegated to a diverse team well and was very organized. Yet, she was constantly tense, without being able to pinpoint the source of her stress. By the time Maya arrived home, she felt terribly drained, as if the air had been constantly seeping out of her proverbial spacesuit all day.
Maya is not alone. Network and communication experts Rob Cross and Karen Dillon found that 90 percent of people show signs of “microstress”, meaning they experience a number of small moments of stress that are barely noticeable on their own but cause significant harm when accumulated. Often, top performers don’t notice what is happening: they consider moments of microstress as usual “bumps in the road” and part of the routine.
Microstress impacts our productivity, our attention span and our ability for creative thinking. It depletes our emotional reserves and can lead to a drastic long-term decline in emotional and physical health. For example, as Rob and Karen pointed out to me on my podcast Out of the Comfort Zone (listen to the episode here), if you are exposed to social stress within two hours of eating a meal, your body responds as if you are eating an extra 104 calories. If that happens every day, this accumulates to an extra 11 pounds a year.
Microstress can also impact your environment and relationships. A seemingly insignificant event can cause a ripple effect that continues to impact you and those around you, long after the initial small stressful interaction has passed:
So what can we do to combat microstress? Here’s what I have learned.
Breaking the Cycle
First, when you notice that you are leaving a meeting annoyed, that’s a signal that something has been left unresolved or might need clarification. To reduce and prevent microstress, try one of these tactics:
Take the time to ask questions, increase understanding and align expectations so there is less confusion and greater clarity on what is actually happening next.
Summarize the action items and key points at the end of meeting to avoid misalignment and to clear the clutter from your brain.
Learn to negotiate or say ‘no’ to last-minute requests. Sometimes people are willing to accept a delay if they know it makes a difference to you.
Say ‘Yes, if’. Yes, you will fulfil the request if you get something in return (learn how to do this in this video).
Notice which relationships leave you feeling the most uncertain. Ask yourself what you can to improve the relationship or the interactions. Get advice from others.
After you have looked at your own sources of microstress, take a second pass and ask yourself: “Where am I causing negative impact on others?” As Karen Dillon said on my podcast: “When you cause microstress for other people, it will almost inevitably boomerang back on you eventually.” Thus, by improving these interactions you’re not only benefitting others, but also yourself.
Forging Other Connections
As the research of Cross and Dillon has shown, there are not only ways of mitigating microstress, but there is also a powerful antidote: Authentic Connectivity.
It turns out that what’s creating microstress is not just the surplus of communication, it’s a lack of meaningful connection in those interactions. In fact, more and more people are clinically lonely despite being superficially hyperconnected to others (learn more in this episode with Ryan Jenkins). As Rob Cross says: “When we become clinically lonely, the mortality rate is the equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
In the hundreds of interviews Karen and Rob conducted, 10% of their interviewees showed minimal microstress. So, what did the members of this happy minority do differently?
The 10% of study participants that appeared resilient to microstress were invested members of at least two or three groups (e.g., book clubs, language classes, running groups, art studios, choirs, or sports teams) where they had meaningful connections with people in the group. They may have only participated once a month; however the existence of the connection was a powerful antidote to microstress. According to Dillon and Cross, “These groups provide perspective, they provide friendship, they provide a diversity of thought that’s different than just the profession or direct family.”
Thus, if you want to sustainably lower your stress levels, maximize your performance, and improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, your goal should be to take actions that break the ripple effect of microstress and to invest in meaningful connections – both at work and outside of it.