When you stop and think about what is stressing you out right now, what are the first sources that come to mind? In preparing for the holiday season, for example, there are many potential stressors, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to linger. You have to reconsider the way you plan travel, who will be at your family gatherings, and whether they are vaccinated or not, and then there’s the gathering itself, and your wishes to make it as pleasant as possible. This means your need to organize goes into high gear, particularly if you also have your “regular” daily stresses with which to contend.
Stress-producing situations can come in many forms, but even as you think about potential sources of stress, how many relate to other people? Is there a relative you fear will throw off your desire for a happy occasion by bringing up sensitive topics, showing up without having been vaccinated, or by commenting negatively on the food, gifts, or decorations? Perhaps you’re dreading to find out what your partner thinks of a recently-acquired cousin-in-law you’ve heard can be abrasive.
In psychology, a stressor is defined as any event in the past, present, or future that you believe you can’t manage. There is no such thing, according to researchers, as an event that’s guaranteed to produce the feelings of anxiety and concern associated with the stress response. What you regard as a stressful event may be experienced by someone else as a challenge—and turning a threat into a challenge is the key to coping, even though this may involve a degree of mental gymnastics.
How to Identify Sources of Interpersonal Stress
As you put yourself in these situations, it may be the first time you’ve really thought about people as “stressors.” Because stressful life events receive so much attention in psychology as causes of poor physical and mental health, people may fail to recognize that you can be just as distressed by what people do as by the experience of heavy time pressure, significant losses such as the death of a relative, or financial insecurity. However, just as stress researchers ask their study participants to list even the most minor of daily events (called “hassles”) and then rate their level of difficulty, you can do the same thing as you conduct your own inventory of what’s stressing you out. In this process, you can discover who are the sources of your people-related stress.
It’s possible that none of this applies to you, and that you feel like you may be off the hook when it comes to dealing with stressful people. However, what are the situations at work, school, or with your friends in which you find yourself anxious and tense? Are these really “situations” or just people? Maybe you never thought about the possibility that a particular person is the source of your feeling on edge.
University of Mainz’s Peter Zeier and colleagues (2021), recognizing the prevalence and importance of daily hassles, investigated the usefulness of a particular stress-busting technique as a way to mitigate against the harmful effects of so-called “microstressors” on physical and mental health. The method they used to identify hassles can help you in this first step of figuring out who are the stress-producing people in your life.
Take the Hassles Test
See if you find as stressful these people-related hassles on the Mainz Inventory of Microstressors (Chmitorz et al., 2020) (translated from the German):
- Social commitment.
- Waiting for one person.
- Talk or gossip from other people.
- Discrimination or bullying by another person.
- Conflict or disagreement in the workplace.
- Conflict or disagreement with friends.
- Conflict or disagreement with loved ones.
- Conflict or disagreement with people you don’t know well (e.g. neighbour).
- Conflict or disagreement with your children.
- Problem due to lack of support or help from others.
- Others owe you money.
- You owe others money.
- Unexpected or unwanted visit.
- Disturbing behaviour or misconduct of others (e.g. reckless smokers, disturbing neighbours).
Other interpersonal situations not directly involving specific people are also included in the Microstressors Test, but the 14 listed here represent fully one-quarter of all the possible daily hassles listed on the inventory. If the same people kept cropping up in your own checking off of these microstressors, then you can go into the next phase, which is to figure out how to fend off future stress.
The 5 Coping Strategies for Reducing Interpersonal Stress
- Think of as many ways to change your perception of the situation as you can. In what the Mainz U. researchers call “reappraisal inventiveness,” the more ideas you can come up with for managing hassles, the more likely you’ll be able to unplug from thinking that the situation isn’t manageable. For example, Zeier et al. list such cognitive reappraisal strategies as imagining the worst (and then overcoming it), trivializing the situation, using optimism, and emphasizing the positive aspects of the situation despite the threat.
- Sift through the stress-reducing possibilities you’ve generated. Not all coping methods will work with all people or in all contexts. You might be able to trivialize the stress represented by a relative who just annoys you but will find it less likely that you can trivialize the stress of working for a demanding boss. In this case, you’ll want to bring in what the German researchers call “reappraisal effectiveness.” For example, you might cope with the boss by seeking advice or ideas from co-workers, at least for emotional support.
- See the person as providing an opportunity for you to grow. Zeier et al. found that the process of experiencing stress could actually help participants come up with more imaginative coping strategies. Their findings, based on an intervention carried out with 165 individuals (average age 25 years old) over a 2-week period, supported the study’s hypothesis that stress exposure can be beneficial. In their words: “When confronted with daily hassles, individuals might have more opportunities to practice cognitive reappraisal and consequently profit from a more extensive repertoire and more effective implementation of reappraisal thoughts.”
- Don’t assume that present stress means future stress. Once you’ve shown that you’re (a) able to think of a variety of coping strategies and (b) could even benefit from exposure to a stressful person, you should be able to have greater faith in your coping abilities. This knowledge can help you face this individual with less trepidation as you’ll know that they don’t have to send you into a tailspin every time you interact.
- See yourself as resilient. Building on that last point, regarding the people who stress you out as sources of manageable hassles can help you gain greater general confidence in your ability to bounce back from threats. Using your experiences with them as practice opportunities for other, non-interpersonal stressors can help you expand your coping abilities in general.
To sum up, recognizing that stress can come not just from situations but from specific people can help you isolate the interpersonal hassles in your life. A little imagination plus practice will get you to the point of being able to overcome even the most hassle-producing individuals you’re likely to encounter.