Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Are daily hassles worse than huge problems?

A storm blows through town, knocking down a huge tree that flattens your house. Your son dies. You get divorced. You lose your job. You get married. You have a baby. Just a few of the many life events that can happen. When they do, they leave behind the residue of stress. You get fat around the mid-section. Your blood pressure rises. Your skin and hair look sallow. You get colds more easily and can't shake them off as quickly.

But do those stressors, which rarely happen but are severe, better or worse than the little hassles that happen everyday.

Your socks sag and scrunch up under your heel, your coffee mug overflows, spilling sweet sticky goo in your bag, you can't find the envelope you need to mail, you step in dog barf, your shin splints flair up, walk to work in the rain. Just a few of the little hassles that don't ruin your day but are nevertheless annoyances - mine this morning anyway.

Are such little daily hassles going to catch up with you?

Research from health psychologists who study the impact of stress on health suggests, yes. Furthermore, those little hassles are even worse for your physical health than the big whoppers that anyone would identify as "stressful."

So what gives? Why are little hassles so much worse for us?

One answer has to do with the amount of perceived control we have over our lives. It's better for mental health to think that what happens to you is your own doing - but only when it comes to positive events. If you view success as your own doing and not "luck" or "god's will," you end up achieving more and having more confidence in yourself. But when it comes to negative events, chalking it up to bad luck is very healthy. Psychological research suggests that people are less likely to attribute negative hassles to bad luck.

Those little hassles - the one's that we think are avoidable - are associated with headaches. Research from Dr. Fernandez of SMU-Texas, found that the perceived severity of these hassles predicts headache frequency and intensity. That may be only one of the physical manifestations of stress, but it is just one that many people face on a regular basis.

It's too bad that so many people resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms - like smoking.

A coworker who I really like smokes. It reeks. Another uses lotion that reeks. I know I have a refined nose that can detect odor well, but I also can tolerate strong smells pretty well too. So why does this stuff bug me?

Control. Now that I no longer control the scent in my morning environment, like I have for the past ten years (!), I get annoyed. I am going to have to change my attitude or develop a better coping mechanism. Today I re-discovered the joys of shared iTunes libraries. That's check one for healthy coping - attempt to overwrite one negative sensation with a different, positive one.


Psychgrad said...

Do you think control would be more important than social support? Seems like social support could account for much of the difference in health outcomes. Loved ones/support systems don't rally to help you cope with uncomfortable socks (i.e., the day-to-day annoyances).

Interesting reference...could be useful for my thesis.

Field Notes said...

I think social support is more important than perceived control. But - say a person lacks social support, then perceived control would be much more important.

I think loved ones can help with socks. A simple hand on the shoulder with a smile are helpful, supportive. And then if that person buys you a new pair of socks and leaves them tucked in your shoes for you to find as a surprise - BINGO!

Social support for annoying socks =D

Psychgrad said...

Even stopping to allow someone to pull up his/her sock that is around the arch of his/her foot is nice. Or, if the support system is really strong, you may have someone to remind you that that pair of socks never stays up properly...at least not with "those" particular shoes. Maybe that's beyond the call of duty.

Field Notes said...

"Even stopping to allow someone to pull up his/her sock that is around the arch of his/her foot is nice."

Yes! And I'd consider that an example of "clothing-adjustment grooming."

Grooming another primate is nice, supportive behavior :)

Nezha said...

Very interesting article. So it's actually psychologically healthy to blame negative events on bad luck...No wonder so many people do that, then. I tend to blame everything that happens to me on me, and then i worry and fret endlessly...lol,will take a few pointers there:):)

Sara J Stuckey said...


There's a "case study" at my office for you. EVERYTHING that happens to her is a negative experience and is solely her fault. When something positive happens to her, she denies it entirely...she couldn't possibly deserve it.

So, my question is this: how does one encourage a self-inflicted victim like this to start blaming negative experiences on bad luck and start accepting the positive experiences as deserved?

(And no, I'm not talking about me...)

Field Notes said...

She needs professional "cognitive-behavior therapy" to change that pattern of cognition!