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Why the Little Things Stress You Out So Much

It may not seem like a big deal when your iPhone's not working or you can't find the light switch, but it can really mess with your brain.

You probably don’t realize it, but you spend a lot of your day on autopilot. Your cognitive system is set up so that you can avoid thinking as much as possible. You know where to reach to turn on a light switch in a room, how much effort you need to flick a sheet of paper into a recycling bin, which icons to hit to send a text and which dial to turn to light the back left burner of your stove.

Because your habit-learning system is so efficient, you no longer have to think about any of these routines. Instead, you can focus on other (generally more interesting) aspects of your life. For example, you can probably get through your entire morning routine—from waking up, through brushing your teeth, to getting dressed and into your car—while planning out your day and mentally preparing for that lunch meeting with a new client.

When something changes in your life, though, suddenly, your habits no longer work. You finally get that dream apartment, but the layout is unfamiliar and light switches elude you. You buy a new car, and mostly find it frustrating that you can’t figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers. Your new smart phone means that the text icon isn’t where it used to be.

In a flash, aspects of your life that used to be done on autopilot are now things you have to think about. The disruption of your habits is completely unsettling. Worse yet, it affects your mood. The stress of having to think about every little action makes you snippy. You just don’t have the patience for other people’s problems. All of your resources are being taken up just getting through the day.

So, what can you do about it? 

The first thing you must do is be prepared to ride it out. The stress of change will remain for about six weeks, until you begin to learn routines for the new situation. After about 6 weeks, you’ll find that you are able to reach out and pop the mail on the new front table in your apartment. You can flick on the wipers at the first sign of rain. You know how far back to push your desk chair to reach the shelf behind you. Once that happens, you’ll be able to take all the cognitive energy you’ve saved and put it toward being more productive at work, being a better friend, enjoying your meals more fully.

Now that you know why you’re feeling unsettled and more or less how long it’s going to last, let everyone know that you are going to be a little extra-anxious until you get settled. Apologize in advance for being a crabbier version of yourself. And if your entire work group just got moved to a new office in a new neighborhood, at least you can share your anxiety with your co-workers who are also dealing with niggling—but powerfully frustrating—email issues and not knowing the best spots for lunch. Misery really does love company. It is always nice to know that you’re not the only one suffering. Commiserate when you need to. Give each other a smile as you walk by that says, “Yeah, I know.” Assure yourselves that eventually you’ll get used to it and everything will be OK.

Because eventually you will get used to it and everything will be OK.

QUIZ: How Stressed Are You?

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