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Why We Shouldn’t Sweat the Small Stuff

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Craig Cutler
The unflappable mom, the level-headed friend, the colleague who sails through tough projects, no sweat. How do they keep calm while you carry on like a maniac? Get the scientific secrets to staying cool.

There are two types of people in this world: those who swoop up their accidentally dropped keys with no complaints and go along their merry way and those who, more often than not, can’t pick them up without cursing or letting out a big, miserable sigh. An insignificant occurrence, yes, but it’s often the mundane incidents (a whining child, an on-the-fritz printer) that reveal how vastly different human temperaments can be, says Michael D. Robinson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, in Fargo.

Some people take life’s small slights and setbacks with a shrug, while others freak out, blow up, or fly off the proverbial handle in a loud huff or with silent seething. Why such a yawning gap in behavior? This is a question that scientists have only recently recognized as being significant to health.

Turns out, just as life’s most challenging experiences can flood the bloodstream with stress hormones, the smallest hassles can take a toll as well, says Nancy Nicolson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands: “The changes are small—a 10 to 15 percent increase in cortisol levels in response to typical daily annoyances, as opposed to a 100 percent or more increase during very stressful events,” like a college entrance exam. But these small fluctuations “happen more frequently and can have a cumulative effect,” says Nicolson. Feeling chronically stressed increases the risk of heart disease and weakens the immune system. It can also compromise some types of memory and learning, says Carmen Sandi, Ph.D., the director of the Brain Mind Institute at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a university in Switzerland. If we could all be more even-keeled (so we didn’t sweat the small stuff), we would enhance our health, both physical and mental.

And recent research suggests that we actually can. To be a more even-keeled person, first you need to think like one, says Rosalind S. Dorlen, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Summit, New Jersey. That means using mental strategies that exercise the region of the brain that’s responsible for reasoning, so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the part of the brain that’s involved in emoting (see The Biology of Chill on page three). To do that takes practice. Consider every irritating incident as a chance to work out the reasoning area in your brain and you’ll realize that what constitutes a stressor is subjective and that little set-backs will ruin your day only if you let them. To that end, Real Simple presented a few everyday nuisances to experts in the field of emotional regulation and asked, “What would an even-keeled person do?” Here are their answers.

You Feel...Inconvenienced

The situation: You put off your errands. You canceled your lunch date. All so you could be home for the cable guy between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. He never shows up.

How to stay calm: Reframe the circumstances. “Thinking differently calms down your brain’s emotional region,” says James Gross, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Stanford University. For instance, if you spent your morning lingering over coffee and the paper while waiting, try to view this as a rare, unexpected luxury instead of a waste of time. It’s also helpful to think of the big picture. As Dorlen puts it: “What’s going on and how you end up feeling depend on where you point the lens.” Perhaps the cable guy simply had more assignments than he could humanly keep up with. This is not to say that you should let it go. You absolutely should call the cable company and express your frustration. But by readjusting your perspective, you can voice your displeasure in a less angry way and still get results.

 

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