How to Talk About Microstresses with Rob Cross & Karen Dillon

April 24, 2023

How to Talk About Microstresses with Rob Cross & Karen Dillon

April 24, 2023

About This Episode

In the most recent installment of Brilliant Thoughts with Tristan Ahumada, he engages in a conversation with Rob Cross and Karen Dillon, the authors of "The Microstress Effect." During the discussion, they delve into the impact of relationships on one's well-being, share personal experiences of tackling microstresses, and offer insights on how to develop resilience and emotional strength to cope with daily microstresses.

The KUNG FUndamental

Tristan Ahumada started the discussion by drawing a comparison between the management of microstresses and a popular quote from the animated movie Kung Fu Panda. He quoted Master Oogway as saying, "Your mind is like this water, my friend. When it's agitated, it becomes difficult to see, but if you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear." This quote emphasizes the importance of managing stress and finding ways to calm the mind to gain clarity and perspective. By recognizing and managing microstressors, we can create space for our minds to settle and, in turn, gain a clearer view of our lives and the world around us.

These microstressors can build up over time, and since we are not aware of them, they can already be affecting our physiological and mental states. We may find ourselves getting tired more quickly, becoming more easily irritated, and feeling generally less well. 

Karen encourages us to try to understand the concept of microstressors so that we can combat their negative effects on our well-being. By recognizing and addressing these small stressors in our lives, we can take steps to manage them and prevent them from taking over our mental and physical health.

To combat the consequences of microstressors, Rob highlights the value of having happy experiences and pastimes in our lives. However, he notes that studies have shown that the impact of negative interactions is typically three to five times greater than that of positive ones. This means that it's important not only to seek out positive experiences but also to actively manage and reduce the negative ones in our lives. By doing so, we can help prevent the buildup of microstressors and their harmful effects on our mental and physical health. Rob suggests using tools such as the microstressor table to identify and address the sources of negative interactions and create more positive and fulfilling experiences in our daily lives.

The Table of 14 Microstressors

Rob explains how he and Karen have developed a tool called the microstressor table, which helps people identify the sources of microstressors in their lives. The table lists 14 microstressors down the side, and across the top are possible sources of where these microstressors are coming from, such as bosses, colleagues, or loved ones. Rob asks people to identify three systemic microstressors in their lives that they should do something about. He notes that people often want to mark many more microstressors, but it's important to focus on just a few to make a material impact. 

It's critical to actively manage and decrease bad interactions in our life since, according to Rob, the negative impact of microstressors is three to five times more than the beneficial impact of happy events. Rob says that it's necessary to concentrate on just a handful to truly make a difference, and Tristan quips that he would likely mark everything on the chart. 200 healthcare executives who were keen to learn how to manage their microstressors recently participated in Rob's recent use of the  microstressor table, he relates.

Consider which two or three of these microstressors we might be causing others as a following step. Recognizing how our own actions may contribute to the stress of people around us can be a difficult but crucial step. We can lessen the tension that boomerangs back to us by lowering the stress we cause for other people.

Rob advises picking three or more microstressors that we should just be able to overcome. We can be letting these insignificant events to control our life and sap our energies. We can come to the conclusion that these microstressors are not worth the mental and physical toll they place on us by taking a step back and gaining perspective.

This approach, according to Rob, highlights the significance of intentionally addressing these small yet significant moments of stress in our lives. By acknowledging them and implementing measures to manage or remove them, we can enhance our general well-being and avert the detrimental impacts of microstressors from dominating our lives.

Maintaining Authentic Connections

Rob also mentions in the episode that successful people tend to maintain authentic connections with at least three groups outside of their profession. These groups can come from various walks of life, such as book clubs, tennis groups, singing groups, or rock guitar groups. This allows individuals to become multi-dimensional in their lives, and work success becomes a part of life success. Those who become too focused on work may experience small setbacks as significant failures. Therefore, it is essential to create dimensionality in life and build other connections to promote resilience and positivity and cushion yourself against the negative impacts of work stress.

This momentary connection with another person can be enough to create a sense of purpose and "authentic connection", which is the term Karen and Rob used in the book. It's not about having many close friends, but rather about being better connected than the rest of the world and finding these meaningful moments in everyday life.

Karen added that research shows that even small moments with other people can give a sense of real purpose. It's not necessary to have a long list of wonderful things in life to be grateful for. In fact, a small act of kindness can create a purposeful moment, as illustrated by a story in the book when she helped an older man in line at CVS get an appointment for COVID testing. By taking just a few minutes to help him, Karen not only provided assistance with the online form but also offered to drive him to his appointment, creating a meaningful and purposeful moment in her day. The key, according to Karen, is to seek out these moments of authentic connection with others, rather than focusing solely on having a large social circle.

These, in Karen's opinion, are merely insignificant instances that can assist you in overcoming microstresses so that you might go on to do something admirable for humanity.

To take on Karen's point, Rob shares a story from the book about a Silicon Valley executive who was a hard charger and focused on achieving personal best times in her annual runs. However, she realized that this was not bringing her true happiness and purpose. She shifted her focus to running with her child, her child's friend, and their parent, which led to a sense of purpose and community. 

Rob stresses the value of savoring the little things and figuring out how to direct activities toward genuine human connections. The book provides a tool that encourages people to take the activities they are already doing and adjust them to create purpose and context, whether it's at work or in life outside of work. It's not that you need to run to the Himalayas, ride a concerto, or sail the ocean. The key is not to push happiness over the horizon by thinking that one big thing will make a difference, but rather to focus on the small moments and find ways to make them meaningful.

Microstresses, Meet Microrelaxers.

Rob went on to elaborate and mentioned Chris, a North Carolina-based acquaintance of his. Chris approached the concept of work-life balance in an intriguing way that was different from what is generally expected. Chris said to Rob that day was actually the moment he understood there shouldn't be a division between the two. Chris believed that there shouldn't be a separation between work and personal life, but rather both should contribute to the way he wanted to live his life. 

He identified six life roles that he wanted to enact, including being a spiritual being, an organizational pioneer, a friend, and a community leader. At the end of each week, he reflected on how he executed those roles and made adjustments in his moleskin notebook. All these things Chris did with mindfulness to help him be more intentional in his life. The striking aspect of Chris's approach was his intentionality in fulfilling those roles, almost seamlessly integrating work and personal life.

Tristan questioned Karen about any other studies or personal insights that would help them manage microstressors. Karen said that it was critical to recognize and categorize these stressors in order to develop a language for understanding how to deal with microstresses.

She then drew conclusions from the "ten percenters," a group of participants in their study who Karen and Rob characterize as particularly adept at managing microstress. She discussed how these individuals were adept at combining activities and connections to make the most of their time. She gave the example of Chris, who arranges a weekly soccer match between neighborhood kids and dads. The top 10% were adept at rekindling old passions with new acquaintances or finding new ways to connect with others while engaging in activities they already valued. Karen mentioned another “ten percenter” named Rob. Rob was a neurosurgeon who got energy from performing in a casual rock band with young people. To get the most out of one's time, she emphasized the value of combining connections and activities.

Rob adds that COVID has contributed to burnout because of elevated stress and social withdrawal, which has reduced coping interactions. He advises using a prior passion to slingshot into a new group. This concept is demonstrated by Karen's tale of a neurosurgeon who joined a band after discovering a guitar.

The Ripple Effect of Microstress.

Similar to how one small act of kindness may have a big impact, microstresses can have the opposite effect. Rob talks about the "ripple effect" and how minor stresses can have significant repercussions. He continues by giving an example of a microstressor in the form of an email sent to Rita by a new manager.

Despite the email being small, it leads to Rita panicking and spending an hour of her time trying to sort it out. This, in turn, causes her to be late getting home, miss out on time with her teenager, and have a stressful conversation with her spouse. The ripple effect of this one email extends to Rita's team and their families as well, causing a chain reaction of stress and anxiety. This shows how a single microstressor can have significant and lasting effects on both an individual and those around them.

Eat the Frog First. 

Tristan discusses emotional reserves and contrasts them with the idea of willpower. He contends that willpower is a finite resource that can be depleted throughout the course of the day, and advises "eating the frog first" or doing challenging chores first thing in the morning. Rob concurs with this and adds that people concentrate on interpersonal interactions and emotional stamina at work.

Building up these emotional reserves can be accomplished by practicing gratitude and meditation. This, along with wonderful relationships, can serve as a source of resilience during stressful circumstances. Rob stresses the value of creating relationships and learning how to leverage them in trying circumstances. Individuals look to others for perspective, humor, and help seeing a way forward. The kind of assistance they require can vary depending on the individual.

The Eight-Minute Phone Call. 

Based on extensive research with Harvard grads over several years, Karen highlights the value of close relationships for happiness. Despite this knowledge, people often feel too busy to maintain these relationships, which can lead to feelings of overwhelm. To address this, Karen recommends a specific tip from their most recent book that involves reaching out to people you have lost touch with and setting up an eight-minute phone call to reconnect. While this may seem artificial or silly, it is a simple and manageable way to maintain or rekindle important relationships without feeling overwhelmed. Karen and Rob have both tried this method and found it to be enjoyable and effective in maintaining connections with people in their lives.

The important takeaway according to Rob—as he mentions again the neurosurgeon who started playing guitar with 20-year-olds who were not his conventional friends but who gained a source of impact from those relationships that shifted his perspective in life—is that you don't necessarily need more friends or close relationships, but you need to find ways to incorporate interactions that bring positivity and impact into your life, even if they are not time-consuming or conventional friendships.

Authentic Connection with AI?

As we continue to incorporate artificial intelligence into our daily routines through activities like gaming and immersive virtual reality experiences, it's not far-fetched to consider the possibility of AI becoming a part of our personal lives, akin to owning a pet and integrating it into our families.

Tristan closes the interview with his question: Is it possible to form a connection with artificial intelligence? Rob mentions studies where people were given virtual reality glasses to talk to avatars of leaders, which resulted in people feeling closer to the company. Karen expresses skepticism about the sincerity of such connections, highlighting the value of genuine human contacts, but she also recognizes the ability of fleeting moments to forge lasting bonds.

Various connections could satisfy various needs. It's not improbable to think about the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) ingratiating itself into our personal lives, similar to owning a pet and integrating it into our families, as we continue to integrate AI into our daily routines through pursuits like gaming and immersive virtual reality experiences.

DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.

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