On a day-to-day basis, most of us can cope with a couple of small frustrations or upsets. Burnt the dinner? Order a takeaway. Spill your coffee as you leave the café? Laugh it off and order a new one. Embarrass yourself in conversation? Joke about it with friends later.
We all know that things don’t always turn out as we planned, so when the little things go wrong, it’s normally not that difficult to shrug them off and keep moving.
Except, that is, when we’re feeling stressed or anxious. As soon as we begin to feel flustered or find ourselves under excess pressure, these little inconveniences which once felt so insignificant suddenly become the worst things in the world. The old adage “there’s no point crying over spilt milk” no longer applies – every problem, mishap or inconvenience feels like the end of the world.
With many people left worrying about any number of things – from homeschooling responsibilities to technical difficulties while working from home and health anxiety about the virus itself – is it any wonder so many of us are finding our patience reserves running dangerously low?
“When we’re experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, it’s common to find that small inconveniences such as a burnt dinner, broken hairdryer or frozen PC feel overwhelming,” explains Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan.
“Even in relatively stable times before the coronavirus pandemic, we tended to worry about life’s little niggles – a survey commissioned by Healthspan found that 62% of respondents claimed their minds ran ‘a mile a minute’ and 83% felt like they had constant internal chatter.
“With the addition of coronavirus, we have even more to think about now, so our minds are processing a higher cognitive load.”
According to Dr Arroll, when our minds are handling so much information, worry and general anxiety, they don’t have time to relax – meaning we end up sending our bodies into fight-or-flight mode.
“Our mental capacity is finite, therefore if we are constantly thinking about the coronavirus and what it means for our work, financial stability, family, health and what the ‘new normal’ will look like, we have little space for a calming narrative.
“These negative and ruminative thought patterns can put us into fight-or-flight mode, make us hypervigilant and subject to mood swings, irritability and a cause a low tolerance for stress. Hence, when some small problem occurs, our ‘worry cup’ is already pretty full – so this can send us over the edge.”
When our “worry cup” overflows and we start to freak out over the smallest of things, it’s time to check in with ourselves, Dr Arroll explains.
“To prevent yourself from freaking out over the small things, it’s important to tackle the negative thought patterns that are running in the background. We can do this by limiting the amount of news we consume, resetting our mindset to the positive by looking at the lessons we can learn from this experience, keeping socially connected while adhering to physical distancing rules (via the phone, messaging and video conferencing) and paying attention to our physical health in terms of our nutrition, sleep and movement.”
Next time you find yourself freaking out about the smallest of issues or snapping at your housemate for making the tiniest noise, take the time to sit back and evaluate whether you’re actually annoyed, or whether you’re just stressed out.
There are very few empty “worry cups” in the world right now, so this is a feeling many of your friends and family members are probably dealing with. Just remember: whatever you’re experiencing right now (and however your mind is responding), you’ve got this.