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Health & Wellness

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

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The driver ahead of you is too busy texting to notice the light has turned green.

A shopper has parked her cart right in the middle of the supermarket aisle. Your spouse left the milk out yet again. Someone took your favorite spot in yoga class.

On any given day we’re likely to encounter these types of petty annoyances. Some of us will barely notice them. We’ll gently tap our horn, nudge the cart out of the way, put the milk back in the fridge, enjoy a different perspective on downward-facing dog.

Others of us, however, experience these small hassles as assaults. We get angry, even furious, and we feel our heart racing, our stomach churning. Over time, though, these small stressors may take a toll on our health, says Carolyn Aldwin, Ph.D., of the Center for Healthy Aging at Oregon State University.

What may affect your health isn’t the cause of the stress — no matter if it’s a major loss or a minor inconvenience — but how we react to it. Here’s Dr. Aldwin’s down-to-earth advice for these situations: “Don’t make mountains out of molehills. Coping skills are very important.”

Instead of getting mad, get mindful. Pause as you feel your stress levels rising and take a few slow breaths. You can try saying “out” to yourself as you exhale, and “in” as you inhale. Or, absorb “state-of-being” words like “peace,” or “calm.” If you find that’s soothing, you might want to try making a few minutes of mindfulness a daily practice. You can find lots of free guided meditations online.

Move daily. Breaking a sweat can be an effective antidote to sweating the small stuff. As psychologist Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points, notes, “Exercise has natural antidepressant and antianxiety qualities.” Plus, she adds, some people might find it easier to maintain an exercise program when they’re motivated by the mental health benefits rather than the physical ones. That’s because exercise gives you get an almost immediate mood boost, while it may take weeks or months to see the payoff in improved strength or pounds shed. Be sure to check with your health care practitioner before starting a new exercise program.

Experiment. For a few days resist the urge to scold the man whose shopping cart is in your way or to cast dirty looks at the yoga interloper (you might try welcoming her to class with a smile instead.) You may find yourself feeling more relaxed, liking this new, easygoing you, and enjoying the pleasant encounters you’re having with strangers.

Become an observer of your reactions, suggests Hugh Byrne, Ph.D., author of The Here-and-Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits Once and for All. “Notice what’s happening in your body, emotions, and thoughts with acceptance and without judgment. If you’re feeling angry, allow yourself to feel the tightness in your chest and the heat in your face. You may experience some relaxation as you do so.”

Cultivate compassion. Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, admits that she’s easily annoyed. One tactic she’s found useful in putting the brakes on her exasperation is to give the benefit of the doubt to the target of her irritation. “What is a reasonable explanation for their totally annoying conduct?” she’ll ask herself.  Maybe someone finds it hard to break a bad habit, like leaving the milk on the counter, despite his or her best intentions. Or maybe they’re feeling rushed or stressed themselves. These explanations are far less likely to arouse your ire than believing your spouse or a stranger is doing something simply to spite you.

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