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Why the Little Changes In Our Lives Drive Us Nuts

5 tips for overcoming life’s annoying little upsets

My friend Mike Ross, like most of us, is a creature of habit. His morning routine, which includes driving his daughter Lisa to school, is efficient and effective. But when a wrench is thrown into the works, as happened one morning when Lisa needed to go to a different drop-off point—15 minutes earlier—Mike became discombobulated. So much so that he forgot the passkeys he needed to get into his office. After that, he says, his whole day “felt off.”

Certainly most of us dread the big changes in life, like moving and broken relationships. They are undeniably stressful and, indeed, many studies have concluded that these major life changes often contribute to major illnesses.

Sweating the Small Stuff

But what of the smaller things in life? Why do they cause us so much angst? After all, we’re only talking about minor changes in our daily routine, like an unexpected traffic jam on the way to  an appointment or a sudden rainfall that prevents you from taking your morning constitutional.

Despite their seeming insignificance, these disruptions get under our skin. My guess is that more road rage is caused by these kinds of inconveniences than by anything else: impatience festers, building up inside until some bleeping driver cuts us off.

When confronted with the reality that we’re not really in control, we feel powerless and that throws us off.

Why do these little changes in routine affect us so much? “It’s part of our life-long, often futile, struggle to feel in control of things,” says Zoe Lazar, a Westchester County, N.Y., psychologist. “We know we will face death and other big things that we can’t control. And we accept this to some degree.” Yet we hold on to all sorts of notions about what we feel we should be able to control, Lazar says.

Our daily routines give us a sense of control. When confronted with the reality that we’re not really in control, we feel powerless and that throws us off.

Regaining Control

Lazar suggests that the best way to deal with this kind of small disruption is to go with it. “Accept the notion that everything changes and embrace this rather than fight it,” she advises. Or to quote that famous philosopher Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want.”

With that in mind, five tips for embracing small changes:

  1. Visualize the steps you’ve always taken. Then add in the wrinkle and revisualize the existing steps.
  2. Create in your mind a new scenario that includes the change you just experienced. Then make up a new ending.
  3. Imagine that a close friend is telling you all about how the small change upset him or her. Then play counselor and give advice.
  4. Talk to yourself! Have a conversation with yourself in which you detail what happened. Then think of the worst thing that could happen as a result of the small change.
  5. Pretend you’re in total control and that you have the power to undo the small change. Then laugh at the notion.

In letting go, there is a lot of relief, Lazar, says and ironically the very act of letting go allows you to feel more in control.

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