Sweating the Small Stuff

My retired mom, who lives with me, came upstairs one day and told me she had had a very stressful morning. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she couldn’t find her cell phone. She looked and looked and finally realized that she had made the bed with her phone under the covers. So, she had to unmake the bed, retrieve the phone, and remake the bed. She wasn’t running late for anything, but she was huffing and puffing about what a setback this had been to her morning, and clearly it had affected her mood.

This was about 10 years ago, not long after my mom first moved in, and I remember at the time thinking that this sequence of events did not seem particularly stressful. It sounded exactly like that spilled milk we are told not to cry over. I even told this story to a co-worker and watched her eyes widen as she clearly agreed with me.

Over the past decade, I’ve thought a lot about my mom’s tendency to get flustered by life’s typical ups and downs. I reflected on how she often felt tired or unwell when I was a kid. It almost seemed like life itself was making her exhausted. Maybe because it was.

I’ve been trying to develop greater empathy for my mom, and my own current circumstances are helping me see things from a new point of view. After years of working at demanding jobs, I am currently unemployed. Now, when I get anxious, most of my stressors seem minor compared to my former work-related dilemmas.

When you’re an anxious person, like me and my mom, you often look for things to get stressed about. If you “require” a constant flow of tension in your life, your only choice is to find it among your daily experiences. The things that stress you out end up being proportionate to what you have going on in your life.

Some human beings are more sensitive when things going wrong. Even trivial mishaps and slights can mess with our day, and we want to say, “eff it.” Sometimes we do say eff it, and we give in to our worst habits and coping tools. These behaviors—like drinking, binge eating, scrolling on social media, or shopping—can be soothing in the short-term but not so efficient or healthy in the long-term.

I’m not saying we handwringers are a weak subset of people, but we react in extremes way to frustrating stuff. Some might call this a lack of resilience, but I think we’re actually a pretty resilient bunch. Maybe the issue is that we aren’t skilled at putting things in perspective, so everything feels like a good reason to throw up our arms. But I don’t think calling this a perspective problem is helpful, either, because it implies that we could get over ourselves if only we realized how insignificant our lives are in relation to others.

What if we decided, instead, that everyone’s emotional strain is valid? That stress is relative, and that’s ok. I think that’s a good start—by taking each of our anxiety levels seriously. By retiring the directive, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Then, if we want to diminish our reactions to stress and stop leaning on those short-term coping behaviors, we can work on that. We can take deep breaths and remind ourselves that this, too, shall pass. But, in the meantime, if we want to vent like my mom did that morning, we should do so without fear of being labeled a drama queen.