We know that big life changes – layoffs, health events, a new baby – can cause a lot of stress. However, there are also tiny shifts in our lives (and even our days!) that are often overlooked when it comes to anxiety.
Maybe you dread lying down in bed for the night, or maybe the morning rush has you stressed out.
These are called “micro-transitions,” which experts define as smaller moments where something is ending and another event is starting. These can include little points in your day, like the aforementioned bedtime, or slightly bigger events, like a vacation ending.
“Whether it’s called triggers or micro-triggers, we all certainly have things that set us off,” says Jeff Temple, a psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, who adds that sometimes even dreading those transitions can be triggering. “There’s anticipatory anxiety, which is anxiety about being anxious, as opposed to actual things to be anxious about.”
Whether you’ve been officially diagnosed with anxiety or just feel stressed in those moments, there are ways to identify which micro-transitions are toughest for you and strategies for coping.
Here are some micro-transitions to watch out for and what to do to counteract them:
Dark thoughts like to show their ugly faces at night, Temple says, so the sun going down or similar evening-related transitions can trigger anxiety.
There are a few theories on why this happens. One study found that sleep disruption can be caused by an inability to control emotionally negative information at night. Some psychologists blame our caveman-esque brains, which used to scan for danger before bed in hunter-gatherer times. Additionally, our brains’ active “negativity bias” – where our minds subconsciously focus on bad news over good news – can be at play. At night, we can reminisce on various negative events that occurred during the day.
The end of a fun event
Maybe you’ve spent weeks preparing for your upcoming holiday with family, only to obsess over your last day as the end of your trip is approaching.
Temple says this can be caused by having a great time and not wanting it to end, or conversely, having high expectations and feeling like whatever happened wasn’t as fun as you wanted it to be.
“So therefore, there’s a sense of dread or let down,” he said. These emotions can materialise as anxiety that you wouldn’t have felt otherwise.
Do you change how you are parenting when your partner leaves the room and your mother-in-law walks in? Maybe you are stricter, or more laid-back.
Either way, Dr Whitney Casares, a private practice paediatrician and founder and CEO of the Modern Mamas Club, says that an “audience change” can be a micro-transition that causes anxiety. This can also show up as “putting on a good face” at a party when you aren’t up for it, or feeling like you can’t be your true self around certain peers.
If you have a Zoom call coming up, and you know your kid will be waking from a nap at the same time or that a repair person is about to arrive, you might feel pulled in two directions at once. Or maybe it’s a slightly bigger scenario: say you’ve committed to a distant relative’s wedding and you get an invitation in the mail for your friend’s wedding the same weekend.
Dreading this inability to balance obligations or responsibilities can lead to some anxiety around those micro-transitions, Casares explains. Anticipating or worrying about issues that may come up can cause your body to go into fight-or-flight mode.
How to deal with anxiety in these situations
The first step to handling this type of anxiety is identifying the micro-transitions that are triggering to you, which can be easier said than done, Temple explains.
“Some of the hardest parts are recognising your negative thoughts, or your anxious thoughts ... it’s really difficult. It’s about being – I really hate this word – mindful and reflective, and paying attention to your body and your thoughts,” he says, suggesting people write it down when they perceive an “automatic thought” popping up.
These are thoughts that we don’t even notice we are having, like “tonight’s going to suck,” or “I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight because I have to do this tomorrow.” Once we can recognise which thoughts are automatic, we can challenge them, Temple says.
“That’s when you need to back up, and sit down and think about what just happened and what was going on, so then you can figure out what you were thinking,” he says. When you do this, you’ll start to notice a certain time of day, activity or anything in your environment that’s causing your anxiety.
Once you know your micro-transition triggers, you can work to prevent them. Then you can approach those transitions in a relaxed state, Temple says. So if, say, the evening is an anxiety-inducing period of time, practicing sitting down and deep breathing as that time begins can help.
You can also try creating a designated worry time to help compartmentalise your thoughts. This may be especially useful if you feel anxiety before sleep.
“Spend 10 minutes sometime in the mid-morning, not right before you go to bed, and write down every single thing that you are worried or anxious about. Stay seated for 10 minutes,” Temple says.
Later in the day, if something feels worrisome, validate the thought but move it to that worry time. “We’re not saying don’t have that thought, because that’s impossible ... we’re saying you’re allowed to think that, you’re allowed to be anxious about that, just not right now. So let’s make a note and we’ll worry about that tomorrow during worry time,” Temple says.
Finally, know you are not alone in your anxieties, Casares says. For example, in scenario of a Zoom call while your child is napping, “you could fill a colosseum full of parents who might feel this exact same way,” she says. By realising anyone in your situation might be experiencing the same emotions, you give your feelings some permission and some room to breathe.