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Why You Should Sweat the Small Stuff

Pay close attention to how you respond to little stressors; you'll likely have more mental bandwidth to identify knee-jerk, stress-filled responses that have likely been with you a long time. The payoff? Doing so builds your resilience for serious problems down the road.
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Cars stuck in traffic at an intersection
Cars stuck in traffic at an intersection

By Jan Bruce

You know that saying, "Don't sweat the small stuff?" I think we all may have gotten it backwards.

Yes, it's important not to get too caught up in the details at the expense of your larger goals. But all that "small stuff" (the traffic jam, the cranky co-worker, the kid who won't go to bed) is more valuable than you think. These minor aggravations give you a chance to practice the number-one, all-important skill for handling all kinds of stressful situations -- building resilience. That's what helps you manage stress so you can focus on the things in your life you love.

A really effective way to start building resilience is, indeed, to sweat the small stuff. Pay close attention to how you respond to little stressors; you'll likely have more mental bandwidth to identify knee-jerk, stress-filled responses that have likely been with you a long time. The payoff? Doing so builds your resilience for serious problems down the road.

Here are two examples of sweating the small stuff -- and how it benefits you long term.

1. You're stuck in horrible traffic.
The line of cars goes on forever. Someone in a red Lexus is trying to nose in front of you after speeding up the breakdown lane. You're late for your kid's soccer game, not to mention you still need to stop at the supermarket to pick up something for dinner.

How do you react in this familiar moment? Maybe bad traffic heats you up, literally. Your palms sweat, your heart races, your thoughts turn dark. Or maybe you start to feel panicked and a teensy bit hopeless, like bad things always happen to you, and your stomach starts tensing up.

Whatever your response is, observe it as if you were looking at a stranger: "Huh, I'm feeling like I need to eat a bag of cookies." Or, "All my thoughts are about how awful other drivers are."

The Pay Off: You know now that anger/despair/overeating is going to be your go-to anytime you feel trapped or out of control. Use the next traffic jam to experiment with different responses that help you stay calm no matter the circumstance, such as deep breathing exercises, challenging your thoughts, or questioning an old belief.

2. A co-worker cuts you off in a meeting.
A little bit of rudeness between co-workers is not uncommon from time to time; we all ruffle each other's feathers, especially when the pressure is high. (If office rudeness is a regular occurrence, that's a bigger problem, of course.) So how you do you respond to it this time?

Do you head to bathroom to cry? Do you shoot back an insult? Do you stew all day over what that person said? Do you assume she has it out for you, or that she's having a bad day? If this moment gets under your skin, take ten minutes to tune into what exactly is going on for you.

The Pay Off: You've brought into your consciousness how you react when unexpected, unpleasant behavior comes your way. Now you can work on rewriting the script. Instead of assuming your co-worker hates you, you can zap that thought before it consumes you. Or if you feel sadness out of proportion to the event, you can explore the beliefs behind the sadness.

Think of it like this quote attributed to Buddha: "Little by little a person becomes good, as a water pot is filled by drops of water." Attend to the small stressful stuff, and you'll become a more resilient person, drop by drop.