The holidays can unleash an avalanche of microstressors. Here's how to defeat them and find calm

Trivial stresses can add up, which is why holidays can seem extra awful. But there are ways to survive

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published December 9, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Christmas Tree On Fire (Getty Images/nikkytok)
Christmas Tree On Fire (Getty Images/nikkytok)

Last weekend, I attended my town’s tree lighting ceremony to commence the holiday season. I went into the event thinking just how the technicians would easily switch on the tree’s lights, the holiday spirit would also illuminate inside me. But then an unfortunate event happened to would cause me to spiral. A treat I had been looking forward to all day was sold-out: a cup of hot chocolate.

As a result, I turned into a Grinch about to steal a memorable night with my bad mood. While I should have admired the joy of my daughter soaking it in, all I could think about was my sold-out hot chocolate. But like the old saying goes in relationships, it’s not about the dishes. Perhaps, my bad mood wasn’t about the hot chocolate either. More likely, it was a bunch of tiny inconveniences and annoyances that had built up throughout the day, or even week, and boiled over into me being thrown into a tizzy because I couldn’t get a hot chocolate.

I’m sure I’m not alone in such a scenario during the holiday season. And it’s not just because it’s a stressful time of year, but it could be due to an accumulation of what has been dubbed “microstressors.” While it’s not a clinical term, psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, and podcast host of Imperfect Love, defined microstressors like the waves of meringue on top of a tasty pie. 

“They’re the small dollops of stress that occur throughout the day,” Manly told me. “In many cases, we are not aware when a microstress occurs and may only take notice when an accumulation of microstressors causes feelings of overwhelm or angst.”

An estimated nine out of 10 adults say something causes them stress during the holiday season.

From travel, decorating the house and tree to meal preparations to family dynamics, not to mention financial overload, the psychological strain can be immense during the holiday season, Manly said. According to a poll conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) an estimated nine out of 10 adults say something causes them stress during the holiday season; a little less than half say that the stress interferes with their ability to enjoy the holidays. Microstressors, Manly explained, have a sneaky way of building up over time.

The metaphor of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” rings true for many over the holiday season, meaning that seemingly small stressor can have the power of triggering a big reaction, "such as learning at the last minute that an extra guest is coming to dinner,” Manly said. “For those who are people pleasers or always on the go, it’s all too easy for the holiday season to take an especially heavy physical and psychological toll.”

Rob Cross, senior vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity and co-author of The Microstress Effect, who helped coin the term microstressor, told Salon he first came across the idea of microstressors when he was doing research on highly successful people like a pharmaceutical executive. First, during interviews, it appeared as if many of these people had the ideal life. As the minutes passed, it became clear that they were incredibly stressed and it wasn’t due to just one stressful catalyst. 

“It was almost always an accumulation of small moments of stress that had pervaded into these people's lives and just became overwhelming,” he told me.

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Typically, when the human brain perceives a threat or something stressful, it activates our nervous systems and sends them into a fight-or-flight response. When this happens, a person might always feel like they are under attack. A person’s heart rate might speed up, oxygen flows faster and pain responses weaken. Interestingly, microstressors alone don't trigger this physiological reaction.

A little bit of stress can be good once in a while, but the human body suffers if stress turns into a chronic condition — like the fight-or-flight is always switched on. However, the accumulation of microstressors can have an impact on a person’s health, too, despite our brains not fully registering them as a threat. For example, one study found that if a person is exposed to social stress, (which can count as a microstressor), within two hours of a meal, the body metabolizes the food in a way that adds 104 calories. Cross noted that in his research he’s found that people often cite interactions with friends and family as the biggest source of microstressors.

“When we set firm boundaries that honor our need for self-care and balance, we’re far more likely not to get overly stressed.”

“Family and friends are sources of great joy, but also in different ways sources of great stress,” Cross said, emphasizing that he hasn’t specifically studied microstressors during the holidays, but it makes sense that this time of year could be full of them. “I have no doubt that they go up during the holidays in different ways.”

When asked how to cope, Manly said she believes “boundaries and mindfulness” are two key tools for coping with microstressors during the holidays. 

“When we set firm boundaries that honor our need for self-care and balance, we’re far more likely not to get overly stressed,” she said. “Mindfulness, slowing down to be in the present rather than worrying about the past or the future, is an excellent tool to reduce stress and enjoy the holiday season.” 

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Cross said understanding the top three or four sources of microstress are helpful when it comes to coping, and setting expectations up front with people. For example, if your children’s expectations for presents are stressing you out, communicate the reality of the situation in advance. But he’s also found another solution to be effective: connecting with people in two to three groups outside of a person’s family or profession — like a tennis club, book club or running group. It could even be a regular volunteering gig. 

“Things that create a greater perspective in life and tend to keep us generally from getting down into the minutia, and getting really upset about small things,” he said. “Don't let go of those groups, and don't let go of them in general, for life, because they help, they're really critical to managing the degree to which we experience those microstressors.” 

Perhaps, even critical to mitigating meltdowns over sold-out hot chocolate.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Christmas Explainer Holidays Mental Health Microstressors Stress