Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.: How To Handle Life’s Daily Hassles

You can’t find your wallet. The bus roars right past your stop. What to do?

Now, in isolation, these daily stresses — little, annoying things like sitting in traffic, waiting in a long line, or office drama (“Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler”) — are pretty manageable. But stack a bunch of hassles together, or make them frequent and reliable, and you get a completely different story.

Indeed, a 2014 study in the journal Experimental Gerontology followed almost 1,300 male veterans for more than 20 years. The researchers measured daily hassles in the men’s lives and found that those who experienced consistently frequent hassles were over three times as likely to die over the course of the study than those whose lives were relatively hassle-free.

Why do small daily stressors have such a big impact? First, they’re often uncontrollable — you don’t get to pick the timing of your car breaking down or your neighbor blasting his music. Second, they make you feel powerless — there’s often nothing you can do about, say, a traffic jam or unthinking bureaucracy. And sometimes daily hassles like noise, pollution, or overcrowding blend into the background, raising our stress without us even realizing.

Here are 4 ways to deal with life’s hassles, none of which involve banging your head against a wall.

Tip #1: Breathe.
Especially when you can’t control a situation, breathing should be your go-to — it’s portable, accessible, and it works. Why? When faced with a threat, your body goes into flight or flight, that age-old response that emanates from deep within our primitive brain. And a threat is a threat, whether it’s a saber-toothed tiger approaching your cave or the copy machine breaking down minutes before your presentation.

Fight or flight is a package deal. It’s almost impossible to be stressed in just one organ system. Among these systems, your respiratory system is the only one that functions both consciously and unconsciously — you don’t have to think about breathing in and out, but you can consciously slow or quicken your breathing. So while all your body systems work together to feel stressed — tense muscles, GI problems, a pounding heart — your entry point to slow everything down is your breathing.

A common misperception is that deep breathing is the key to relaxing. But that’s not actually the case — instead, it’s more important to breathe slowly. Slow breathing slows all your other systems and turns off the flight or flight alarm. Try it now: imagine your torso is a pitcher of water. Breathe in and fill the pitcher slowly from the bottom up — from your belly to your chest. On the exhale, “pour” your breath out slowly from the top down.

A nice way to get some immediate feedback on this is to put your fingertips on your neck or wrist and find your pulse. Take a breath in, and then let it out very slowly. You’ll feel your heart rate slow as you exhale. This is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia, and it’s the natural fluctuation of your heartbeat as you breathe in and out. But continue breathing slowly, and you can calm all your systems, even while you sit in that traffic jam.

Tip #2: Plan and problem solve.
You don’t have to let everything roll off your back. Some hassles you can change. Go for the highest-yield changes and target the hassles that drive you nuts daily.

For example, to minimize the commute, do your best to shift your schedule earlier or later to avoid traffic, or invest in some good audiobooks to make the time less miserable. To avoid not having to go grocery shopping at the last minute, plan out dinners for the week before you hit the grocery store. If you keep losing your phone, invest in one of the many gadgets that help you find it.

In short, invest time or energy in thinking about how to minimize or prevent hassles, and you’ll thank yourself later.

Tip #3: Think differently.
In the same 2014 study that followed the veterans for 20 years, the researchers found that it wasn’t just the number of hassles that made the difference, but how the hassles were perceived. In general, interpreting problems as if they a global, permanent, or personal leads to much more stress than the trio of specific, temporary, and situational.

So let’s work our way through those three swaps. First, global to specific: “My entire office is incompetent!” or “This transit system is the worst!” are inflated, all-encompassing ways to think about one mistake or inconvenience. Whittle your complaint down to something more specific, and things will seem much less overwhelming. Next, switch from permanent to temporary. “This house is always a disaster!” raises your heart rate a lot faster than “This house needs a good cleaning!” It’s subtle, but the reappraisal makes a big difference. Finally, swap personal to situational. “He didn’t text me back. He must be mad at me,” is really different from “He didn’t text me back. Maybe he is busy.”

Tip #4: Own your stress. Then question it.
Many of us see our stress as uncontrollable or inevitable. But if we look more closely, sometimes we discover we create our own stress by procrastinating, wasting time, or being disorganized.

So take control. It takes some discipline, but there can be a domino effect in the best sense: getting to bed earlier leads to more energy, which leads to getting distracted less often, which increases your productivity. Instituting a system where you only check your email twice a day helps you focus and opens up time you didn’t know you had.

So while hassles are as certain as death and taxes, your approach can make all the difference. Change what you can and breathe through the rest. And of course, hold on to your stapler.

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