Banishing Everyday Stressors

Life’s daily hassles can add up in a big way, affecting our health, our stress level, and our ability to get things done. I had stopped noticing many of the little stressors around our house, but I saw them with fresh eyes when we returned home after an extended holiday. We embarked on a campaign against these small annoyances and not only improved our space, but reclaimed some mental energy along the way.

organized spice drawer

When I return home after a long time away, I often have a new perspective on my life and surroundings. It’s as if my mind has been reset so that – for a short time – I can see things as an outsider and notice the things to which I had become habituated. This was certainly the case when I returned home to my Barcelona apartment after a 5-week trip to the US.

There were many things about my home that I appreciated anew, like the amount of light that comes streaming through our windows. But there were fresh annoyances – the pile of boxes that had taken up permanent residence in the hallway, for example, and the near impossibility of matching lids to containers when putting away leftovers.

Spurred on by our new awareness of little annoyances, along with the autumn clutter-control bug that seems to strike so many, we decided to do some major organizing. Our approach was part analytical, favored by my software engineer husband, and part simple observation. We spent time walking around the apartment and identifying what we found stressful and we also started paying more attention to what we found annoying in the moment. Many of these things were fairly trivial – the cluttered nightstands, the disorganized drawers, having to move seemingly hundreds of body care products in order to clean the kids’ bathroom. But taken together, these small everyday annoyances can really add up.

The Surprisingly Big Impact of Little Annoyances

Most of us are aware of the negative impacts of major chronic stress, but a number of studies have shown that even minor everyday hassles impact health, mood, and cognitive function – not only in the moment, but also in the long term. Back in 1982, for example, Anita DeLongis and her colleagues at UC Berkeley studied 100 people over the course of a year. They recorded the everyday hassles people experienced – things like not liking work duties or misplacing something. They also recorded major negative life events and measured physical health and energy level. The researchers found that although both daily hassles and larger negative life events impacted people’s health, the daily hassles actually had a bigger effect.

A more recent 2016 study, done by Nicole Mead at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and her colleagues, showed the shorter-term effects of everyday hassles. They found that the more annoyances people had to deal with during the day – things like traffic on the way to work or a dead cell phone battery – the less progress they tended to make on their daily goals and the more mentally exhausted they were at the end of the day. On the brighter side, the researchers also found that the more pleasures people experienced during the same day – things like looking at the stars or spending time with a friend – the less impact the annoyances had. This is good news for me because it means that my organized closets are a double win. Not only am I no longer annoyed when I open a closet, but I get a little jolt of pleasure when I see the order that has replaced the mess.

Reclaiming Mental Energy

We’re not always aware of stressors and their effects, especially ones to which we’ve become habituated. In some cases, I became aware of my negative response to small annoyances around the house only after those annoyances disappeared. For example, I notice the mental cringing and spike in stress when I open the hallway closet only because the tumble of loose grocery bags that I’m expecting fails to emerge from the recently organized space. It’s a quirk of human cognition that we are more likely to notice when our assumptions are not met than when they are. As I habituate to my new organized normal, even this anticipated stress response is disappearing.

Not only is my organized home a more pleasant place, but the time and mental energy I wasted looking for things and being annoyed can be used for other things – like getting into my art studio or writing this blog post. Now I’m ready to extend my organizational spree to things that are less tangible than my physical space, like being more organized about how I keep track of my to-dos.

What is stressing you out? What small changes could you make to alleviate that stress? What difference might that make to your life?

 

Supportive Environments for Effectiveness (SEE): Being Capable. It’s hard to feel capable when we’re not at our mental best – like when we’re stressed out or mentally fatigued. Sometimes we’re aware of the things that are depleting our mental energy, like a major project at work or dealing with a difficult client. But there are often smaller things, of which we might not even be aware, that can chip away at our mental resources and make us less effective in both the short and long term. Doing what we can to fix or avoid small everyday hassles is like fixing the drip in a faucet – it may not completely solve the water shortage problem, but it’s a start.

Anne Kearney is an artist and writer living in Barcelona, Spain. Her writing and artwork are inspired by her decades of experience as an environmental psychologist working for universities, non-profits and NASA. She has a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Stanford University, and a M.S. in Resource Policy and Behavior and Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology from the University of Michigan.