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The surprising effects of microstress — and what to do about it

The surprising effects of microstress — and what to do about it

Move over regular trauma, there is a new kind of stress in town. If anxiety, burnout, and unease weren’t enough to fret over as you look to build your side income, now we have to worry about a newcomer: microstress.

The term, coined by business experts Rob Cross and Karen Dillon, may seem small (micro is in the name, after all), but the effects can be devastating – especially for your side income endeavors.

Below, we analyzed past interviews with the duo and several other sources to unpack microstress, its effects on side hustlers, and how to lessen its impact on your life.

What is microstress?

Unlike its big brother stress that’s obvious and easy to pinpoint, microstress flys under our conscious radar. Microstress are the little inconveniences, the small challenges that we might not even realize are challenging. Cross and Dillon explain to Harvard Business Review: “Microstresses come at us so quickly, and we’re so conditioned to just working through them, that we barely recognize anything has happened.”

If you don’t realize it’s happened, is it actually a problem? Yes. Because even if we don’t consciously recognize the microstress, our bodies do. And without the support of our consciousness, our nervous systems get all out of what. Cross and Dillon continue:

“The process by which we respond to normal stress is called allostasis, the biologic mechanism that protects the body from it. Allostasis helps us maintain internal homeostasis, or internal balance. Our brains know how to register conventional forms of stress…But microstressors can fly under the radar of our fight-or-flight vigilance systems while still taking a significant toll."

Sneaky! And even more sinister, microstress can masquerade as a positive thing – think helping a coworker who’s floundering to complete a project. And that moment of microstress begets more microstress. That hour you spent helping someone on your team? Maybe that led you to be running late to dinner with your partner.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t be generous or helpful, but it’s good to be aware of the impact it’s having on you.

If you want to learn more about microstress and how to avoid its negative impact, consider picking up The Hidden Toll of Microstress by Cross and Dillon.

How does microstress impact your life?

Cross and Dillon outline three key ways that microstress can affect your wellbeing: draining your capacity, depleting your emotional reserves, and challenging your identity. And twist! They’re all related.


Too many microstressors, like feeling overly responsible for coworkers, dealing with inconsistent managers or tricky situations requiring collaboration, can make it difficult to accomplish day-to-day responsibilities, which ultimately make you feel unsuccessful in either your personal or professional life (or both!).


Think of your capability for dealing with emotional situations like a bucket. It only takes one drop on a full bucket to make it overflow. That’s what’s happening with microstress, leading you to have a harder time navigating conflict or staying focused in difficult situations.


When things aren’t quite right in your network or if you’re getting a lot of critical feedback, it can lead to you feeling like you’re not the person you thought you were (or want to be). Which can ultimately chip away at motivation for action.

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Why is microstress worse for side hustlers?

The source of microstress is often instability, unpredictable work or new challenges. If your side hustle is successful, this will sound familiar. If you are constantly taking on new clients and new work, you’re also taking on new relationship dynamics, new unknown variables, and new expectations – all situations rife with microstressors.

Cross and Dillon also note that “high achievers” like entrepreneurs or side hustlers are particularly prone to the effects of microstress because they have less separation between work and free time. Cross and Dillon write: “Too many of us have fallen into a reactive posture by accepting that we now live in a hyperconnected, 24/7 world, with everyone a simple text, call, or video chat away. As a result, we’re on call around the clock; the interconnectedness of our work and home lives is staggering.”

This keeps us in a cycle of microstress that is increasingly difficult to break. But it’s not impossible.

How to combat microstress (to the benefit of your side hustle)

Microstress is an unfortunate reality, but that doesn’t mean we have to relent to its influence over us. There are a few things you can do to fight the ravaging effects of microstress.

Build relationships

Both at work and professionally, strong, quality relationships go a long way in both dealing with microstress and avoiding it altogether. Dillon tells Fortune: “In the workplace, one common source of microstress is misaligned priorities. In the old days, you would work with the same group of people for a long time, and you got to know them pretty well. Now, we’re apt to collaborate on many different projects and teams, which means you might not know or trust your colleagues fully. You don’t know yet how much you can rely on them, so you work kind of defensively.”

When microstress is unavoidable, personal friendships can help us alleviate the symptoms. Inc reports, “You can build resilience in small moments of authentic connection with a range of people in your life. By cultivating more authentic human connection across all areas of your life, they explain, you can buffer against the worst effects of microstress.”

For inspiration on where to find said connections, Forbes has outlined 7 categories of relationships that are key to overcoming microstress.

Prioritize life outside of work

"We found that the happiest people in our research were able to put some of the microstress in their lives in perspective. In part, that was because they tended to belong to two or three groups in their lives — outside of their professions — that were meaningful to them," write Cross and Dillon. We all know this. People are happier when they have a hobby, volunteer, or a routine outside of their work or side hustle. But sometimes we all need a reminder about how important these special interests really are.

Just say no

Saying no is hard, especially as a side hustler (e.g. founder, freelancer, entrepreneur). But at a certain point, it’s important to know when your bucket is nearly full so you don’t let it spill over.

Limit your opportunities to experience microstress and you’ll ultimately unlock more capacity for productivity.

Embrace it?

Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford, says all stress is a sign that you care about something. If you weren’t feeling stress then what you’re doing doesn’t matter.

The key is to recognize the stress and why you’re feeling it. Then, the same stress that initially felt debilitating can actually enhance performance. She explains on the Stanford Graduate School of Business podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart, “Stress can help you rise to a new level of understanding, can deepen your connection with others, can make us even physiologically grow tougher and stronger.”

It just starts with noticing your emotional responses or behavioral reactions without judgment. While a bit at odds with the learnings from Cross and Dillon, one thing is clear – the worst thing you can do when feeling the effects of stress or microstress is to ignore it.

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