From life experiences to daily hassles

All life stresses are both actual real events and subjective interpretations. Your world could be falling apart at the seams and you might display little outward signs of stress, yet on another occasion you might lose sleep because you can't decide on new wallpaper for the living room. These small stressful events are described by psychologists as daily hassles, a fairly innocuous term for potentially very damaging situations. Psychologist Allen Kanner defines daily hassles as 'irritating, frustrating, distressing demands that to some degree characterize everyday transitions with the environment' (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981, p. 3). Daily hassles can include the practical (losing the car keys or getting stuck in a traffic jam), fortuitous occurrences (thunderstorms when you haven't brought a coat with you) as well as other concerns such as arguments, disappointments or family and financial issues.

Research into daily hassles involves the measurement of how incidents impact on the individual and their relationship to negative emotional outcomes. A possible antidote for daily hassles are known as daily uplifts, those small things that happen to us throughout the day that lift our mood. Evelyne Bouteyre, Marion Maurel and Jean-Luc Bemaud also discovered that daily hassles can increase depressive symptoms, at least in French students (Bouteyre, Maurel, & Bemaud, 2007). Bouteyre and her colleagues asked first year undergraduate students to complete a number of questionnaires, one based on the widely used Beck Depressive Inventory and others related to coping and daily hassles. They found that 41 per cent of those surveyed suffered from depressive symptoms that arose as the result of the daily hassles students encountered in their first year at university. Daily hassles, therefore, appeared to be a factor in depressive symptoms. In addition, the severity of the hassles was related to the severity of depressive symptoms, so hassles that were related to the future (the most significant hassle within the sample) were more likely to lead to symptoms related to depression than the least important (for example, physical appearance).

Students in the study also used different strategies to cope with the negative impact of daily hassles, some that were more successful than others. The least effective coping strategies were emotional-centred, such as rumination and self-blame (these were positively correlated with depressive symptoms). The most successful coping strategies involved the effective use of social support mechanisms, that is, seeking help and support from around them when the daily hassles became difficult to cope with on their own. It needs noting that this was a very specific sample (first year undergraduates in a French university) and that the sample was relatively small (233), but the general findings are supported by previous and subsequent research.

Occupational psychologist Roxanne Gervais, along with Glyn Hockey of the University of Sheffield, investigated the role daily uplifts played on the reduction of the negative consequences of daily hassles (Gervais & Hockey, 2005). Using a daily diary method, nurses were asked to record both their daily hassles and their uplifts throughout the working day. They found that daily uplifts (anything from a sit down and chat with friends to praise for a job well done) countered some of the impact of the irritants the nurses faced, suggesting that even small uplifts can act as support mechanisms.

It might be an obvious thing to state, but nobody leads a hassle-free life. What makes some daily hassles more damaging to our wellbeing than others is based both on their frequency and what is going on at the same time. If daily hassles seem to constantly strike then they can grind us down; if they occur at the same time as a major life event, they can appear insurmountable.

What we consider to be a daily hassle also differs between different people and different cohorts. Students, for example, might not consider certain events as being hassles (such as not getting enough sleep or spending time with the family) while those in middle age might not be too troubled by physical appearance or worries about the future. We also need to consider the temporal nature of hassles, for example, mobile phones and smartphones have become a greater hassle over time, the constant feeling of being on-call or the habit of continually checking emails and updates.

Major life events can also affect the way we cope with daily hassles. The child whose parents are going through a messy divorce might find it hard to deal with minor setbacks at school, setbacks that usually make little impact. They might also impact normal coping mechanisms, making it much harder to bounce back from setbacks, for example. Underlying stress also impacts our sleep, either by preventing us from sleeping or demanding that we sleep more, which, in turn, affects behaviour in often unpredictable ways.

But daily hassles don't always occur in the presence of major life events, indeed, they most often don't. The manner in which the individual copes with them, therefore, will be affected by their character or personality, their routine environment (or the extent to which routine is affected) and interaction, that

is, how we respond to the event. The extent to which we can deal with them is dependent on the type of event; some are situational, such as being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work, and there is often little we can do to fix

it. Others are so rare that we really have no idea what to do, such as being caught up in a robbery or having to cope with a person in the street who has had one too many drinks. Others are repeated, either because we remain in the same environment in which the hassle occurs, such as in the same job or relationship where the demands are consistent and predictable, or we have proven ourselves to be ineffective when dealing with a common situation.

Einstein might have said that insanity was doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result (but who really knows?). This behaviour doesn't really have very much to do with being sane or otherwise, but those daily hassles that are repeated often entail the failure of our attempt to avoid them. If I'm stuck in a traffic jam every Wednesday morning because Wednesday is bin day and the lorry blocks the road, then chances are I'll avoid the jam if a) I take a different route to work every Wednesday or b) I leave the house ten minutes earlier to avoid it. Leaving at the same time and taking the same route every Wednesday will predictably lead to me getting stuck in the traffic jam; I'm doing the same thing over again and either expecting a different outcome or have become so governed by the habit that it feels too uncomfortable to change it, despite the inevitable irritation it causes.

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