Lighten Up – Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

By Mimi Kraus, LCSW-C

Have you ever been with someone so tightly wound that the molecules of air around them seemed to literally vibrate? Have you ever been around someone who sucked all the air out of the room so you felt that you couldn’t breathe? If you have, you wouldn’t be likely to go back for a second round of that misery! 

Of course, no one wants to be with that person, or worse, to be that person!  

However, many of us find ourselves stressed and anxious dealing with modern life. Our nervous systems often don’t behave well when the computer freezes, or our calls get dropped after being on hold for many minutes. Our muscles tense into knots when sitting in traffic or waiting in lines. There are biological reasons for this phenomenon. Our human bodies evolved over millennia to respond to threats to increase our odds of survival. When a threat was perceived, our nervous systems went into fight or flight mode to fend off or escape from a predator or other threat. We are still living with these ancient nervous systems which do not distinguish minor threats from major ones well. That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that we do have large cerebral cortexes in our brains which we can train to mediate the stimulus-response loops of the more primitive brain structures. If we can learn to pause between the stimulus and automatic response, to think, to breathe, then we can calm ourselves enough to reduce our levels of stress hormones. We can learn to then evaluate the threat and respond more proportionately. Most sources of stress are minor and temporary, such as traffic jams, dropped calls, or frozen computers. 

Some of us may struggle with perfectionism which can be the outward manifestation of our own inner critical voices, telling us that we are not good enough. In the mind of a perfectionist, small things can seem large, such as the crumbs on the counter or the few stray hairs in the sink. As nothing in life is perfect, the perfectionist lives in a constant state of nervous tension. Self-acceptance and developing more realistic expectations might help here. 

Here are some tools you can apply that will help a tightly wound nervous system and reduce stress around everyday challenges: 

  • Stop and pause before reacting. Take a few deep breaths or count to 20. 
  • Evaluate the level of urgency of the situation and consider an appropriate response. 
  • Take time in your day to feel gratitude for the positive things and people in your life. 
  • Make a point of being kind and caring to yourself. Allow yourself to experience pleasure. Take time to relax. 
  • Check out your expectations of self and others and keep them realistic. 
  • Accept yourself and others as “good enough” instead of perfect. 

While we can’t control everything that happens in the world around us, we do have the power to manage how our minds and bodies respond.

Mimi Kraus, LCSW-C is a Clinical Therapist at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.  

To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.

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