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  • Writer's pictureAmy Smith

Why am I Easily Frustrated by Small Things? The Causes, Impact and How to Deal with This Phenomenon

There are times in our lives when we may find ourselves getting frustrated to a disproportionate level with minor inconveniences or stressors (such as people eating loudly, being cut up in traffic) when at other times in our lives we have a less intense response to similar stressors. Some individuals find that this is pervasive for them, that over a long period of time they can experience strong reactions to situations that for others might only affect them to a small degree or not affect them at all. This article explains this phenomenon, its impact, as well as ways to combat it if this affects you.

Here are reasons why we can become frustrated by small things:

· Stress Bucket. It is likely that we are experiencing high levels of stress or emotional pain in other areas of our lives which reduces our tolerance levels for even minor stressors. To help explain this, imagine a bucket and each time something stressful occurs you add liquid to the bucket. The amount of liquid you put in corresponds to the severity of the stressor. If we experience lots of stressors, or even a small number of large stressors the liquid level will be high. Then even if one more smaller stressor occurs, such as someone chewing loudly, this can tip the fluid over the edge of the bucket. In reality, this can lead an individual to feel significantly overwhelmed as our brains and bodies can only tolerate so much demand placed upon it. This can lead to a response, to the seemingly small stressor, that is not in proportion to the situation

· Personality Traits. There are some personality traits that can make individuals vulnerable to low frustration tolerance levels. For example:

a) Entitled. Those who have entitled personality traits, that is, those who feel that they are deserving of special treatment, may have a low tolerance level of minor stressors. This is because they may hold views that they should not be inconvenienced, even by small discretions. They often consider their needs significantly above others leading them to lack compassion for those around them who may have, inadvertently, done something that would ordinarily elicit no response, or a small stress response, in others.

b) Perfectionist. Perfectionists hold high expectations of themselves and others. Therefore, if something occurs that is not to their standard, they can react strongly and be overly judgmental.

c) Punishing/Critical. Some individuals can be overly punishing, or critical, of themselves and others. This may have developed for various reasons, for example, growing up in an environment with overly critical caregivers, receiving little praise and one that lacked sufficient love and care. When a minor stressor occurs, rather than showing empathy and compassion, such individuals experience overly punishing and critical thoughts which fuels frustration levels.

· Heightened Stress Response. Individuals who have experienced high levels of stress and trauma in their childhood can develop a sensitised stress system in the body. As a result, their stress response in their bodies has a low threshold for stress and, as such, can be triggered by small stressors. The stress response in their bodies can be greater in response to stressors compared to those with less traumatic upbringings, and their stress response can take long to return to normal levels.

When an individual becomes significantly frustrated, by even small stressors, this can have a range of negative consequences. Internally, it can further fuel their stress systems which keeps their bodily systems sensitised. As their brains and bodies are more often in a stress mode, this can make them vulnerable to other emotional difficulties, such as anxiety and depression. It is also well known that heightened stress levels for prolonged periods can have a detrimental impact upon one’s health, it is a risk factor for a range of illnesses. The negative impacts do not stop there. If someone is frequently frustrated by small stressors, it often does not just have an impact upon them internally but it can have a detrimental impact upon relationships, their work and hobbies.

Here are some ways to help manage low tolerance for frustration (you may find it helpful to apply these tips in the order that they are presented):

Triggers and Early Warning Signs. Get to learn what your triggers are. When you have become easily frustrated; What happened? Who were you with? Where were you? Then try to identify your early warning signs of frustration building. What common thoughts do you have when you start to become frustrated (e.g. it is not fair, they shouldn’t get away with this)? What do you often do when you feel frustrated (e.g. pace up and down, jump between tasks)? How do you feel physically (e.g. tense, hot, shakey)? What emotions do you feel (frustrated, stress, angry, upset)? If you have a good grasp of what your triggers and early warning signs are, when these occur you can more easily spot them and intervene before things escalate.

Stop and Breathe. This sounds simple I know, but it is very important. Once you identify a trigger has occurred and you are experiencing early warning signs, stop and breathe. When emotions are high our default mode as humans is to act upon them without stopping and reflecting upon them and their associated thoughts. This becomes problematic if we experience extreme thoughts and emotions in a given situation as it will then likely lead to unhelpful behaviours. It can be helpful to incorporate mindfulness elements here. As you breathe focus on the details of your breathing. Perhaps notice the cool air as you breathe in, notice how it feels as your lungs expand as you inhale, what they feel like as you exhale, notice how the temperature of the air is slightly warmer as you breathe out. When your mind wanders onto the stressor, just notice that your mind has wandered and return your attention back to your breathing.

Reflect, Reflect and Reflect. Once you have slowed things down, take a step back and reflect upon what just happened. How much of your response is to do with the situation and how much of it is to with other things going on for you? Does this situation have similar features to a traumatic/highly stressful situation from your past? What are your general stress levels like? Are your thoughts in proportion to the situation? Are you being overly punishing and critical? If so, try to connect with a more compassionate and balanced view of the situation. Try to separate out what it happening in the here and now from any past difficulties you have faced or wider stressors you are currently facing.

Act in Line with your Values. Reflect upon your options in terms of what you do next. Which option(s) are most in line with how you want to be as a person? This may entail not acting upon your impulses which can be uncomfortable. However, try to be willing to face this and the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that you may experience by not acting upon your impulses. Although this may be more challenging in the short term, in the longer term it will serve you better. Often it is best to wait for emotions to settle before responding.

More Mindfulness. Notice, in a non-judgmental way, where you feel the frustration in your body. If you could give it shape and colour what would it look like? You don’t have to like it but try to make space for this, allow it to be there. Your mind will probably tell you to fight it but this only serves to further fuel it. Let go of the struggle with it. As you breathe in imagine breathing into the shape. Just notice what happens next, does it stay the same? Get stronger? Weaker? Try to explore it as you would if you were a curious scientist.

Seek Therapy. If this is a frequent problem for you and it is having a significant detrimental impact upon your life and you are struggling to manage your emotions it could be good to consider seeking therapy from a trained therapist.

If you would like to consider therapy in-person in St Albans/Hertfordshire or online to help frustration difficulties feel free to email me at or kindly complete the webform.

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