What Is Background Stress, And How Do You Overcome It?

By Mia Casey

Some causes of stress are obvious – an increased workload, exams and assignments, family or friend drama, or a hectic workplace. But sometimes, it’s a lot of little things that build up without us even noticing, and suddenly we’re stressing out without really knowing why. So what sorts of things could be causing this background stress? And how can we minimise its effects? Read on!

Causes of stress

Lack of weekly stability

Having a plan or schedule gives you an easy fall back for when things get stressful. If you don’t have a basic weekly plan, or perhaps can’t have one because of shifting work commitments, this can lead to stress. Not knowing what to expect from week to week can be exciting for some people, but for others this can make it difficult to plan time to devote to things important to them (such as relaxation, family time, hobbies, etc.). Without this ability to plan ahead, it can feel like you never have any down time, which can definitely be stressful.


When things get busy at work or uni, one of the first things many of us neglect is tidying up. Whether it’s the aftermath of an all-nighter before an assignment is due, or a few small things that have built up over a couple of weeks, living in a messy space can trigger a background stress reaction without us necessarily realising its cause.

Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter has pointed to clutter being a key factor that can lead to stress, giving 8 reasons behind her theory:

1. Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.


2. Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.


3. Clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.


4. Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.


5. Clutter makes us anxious because we’re never sure what it’s going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile.


6. Clutter creates feelings of guilt (“I should be more organized”) and embarrassment, especially when others unexpectedly drop by our homes or work spaces.


7. Clutter inhibits creativity and productivity by invading the open spaces that allow most people to think, brain storm, and problem solve.


8. Clutter frustrates us by preventing us from locating what we need quickly (e.g. files and paperwork lost in the “pile” or keys swallowed up by the clutter).

Rushed mornings and long commutes

Getting up in the morning (especially in winter) can be a definite struggle. That desire for a bit more of a sleep-in can lead to a morning rush that can leave you on edge as you start your day. If you’ve got a long commute, or you’re travelling on public transport in peak hour, this can mean that the first hour or more of your day includes a number of stressors, which does not normally lead to a cool, calm, and collected mindset as you start work for the day.


Seeing all of your friends on Facebook landing their dream jobs, getting married, or travelling the world while you’re in a place in your life that you’re not completely happy with, can cause a sense of stress. It can make you feel like everyone else is progressing without you, or that what you’re doing is somehow not enough. This can lead to an underlying sense of anxiety, a decrease in job satisfaction, and stronger stress reactions to increases in your workload, or the introduction of more acute stressors.

Ways to overcome it

Start implementing positive habits

Overcoming stress isn’t an overnight process – it involves making conscious decisions and employing tactics that you practice repeatedly throughout your life. It’s about establishing coping mechanisms, having schedules that you can fall back on when thing get rough, and prioritising a healthy work/life balance in daily life. As bomb disposal expert, Andy Torbet, has said about stress:

Now is the time to get on with the work. It’s all about hard work but not just in the moment but in the hours, weeks, months and years building up to that moment that gives you the abilities to deal with the problem, have the confidence in yourself and therefore not be, too, stressed out.

Now this is easier said than done, but a lot of it has to do with your emotional intelligence, and ability to prioritise. If you’re a person who leaves things until the last minute, or struggles with maintaining a work/life balance when work or uni gets hectic, then it’s time to take a step back and start planning ahead.

First, you need to recognise when you start procrastinating or sacrificing one area of your life for another. Using your emotional intelligence, discern what is motivating you to act this way, and start thinking of ways to use that motivation in more positive ways. Maybe you’re procrastinating because the assignment you have to do seems too big, or you just don’t understand it. How can you overcome this? See if your tutor or lecturer would be able to explain the question to you, make a study group with your friends to revise the topic together, or break the assignment down into smaller parts and plan to do a little bit each week.

By creating strategies to deal with reoccurring situations that cause you stress, you’ll gradually find them easier to handle. It’s all about recognising what you’re feeling, and being proactive about overcoming any negative emotions.

Plan ahead

If you know that certain things stress you out and you’ve got a busy week ahead, make some plans to alleviate that stress. Struggle getting up in the mornings? It’s time to utilise some self-control and make sure you go to bed early the night before, so you’ve got enough time to take it easy while getting ready the next morning. It might seem like a massive pain at the time, but making sure you’re well rested and can get ready without stress, will ensure you’re starting your day with a positive mindset.

Or, if you know you’ve got a long commute, turn it into your ‘you’ time. Download some podcasts beforehand, grab a good book, or download a new game on your phone, and focus on doing something you enjoy, rather than how packed the train is or whoever’s sitting next to you. Use it as your time to do something you enjoy, for no other reason that that you enjoy it.

Try to implement some elements of mindfulness into your life

This may not be for everyone, but introducing a few simple mindfulness exercises into your routine can help fight stress, and help you remain level-headed when you’re facing stressful situations. Mindfulness often involves meditation and self-reflection – two things which you can easily do on a daily basis. It can help you clear your mind, put issues into perspective, and use techniques to help your body overcome the more physical side effects of stress.

Check out this Huffington Post article or this Pocket Mindfulness piece, for a couple of examples of exercises you can employ when things get tough.

Decluttering time

It may not be fun, but trying to including a bit of tidying in your weekly schedule can help you avoid the background stress that comes from trying to be productive and calm in a cluttered environment. You don’t need to start big (cleaning your entire house weekly isn’t always possible), but starting to implement small habits can make a big difference.

For example, you know when you finish an assignment and you can finally close all those tabs on your computer? Trying to get into the habit of tidying all the non-digital clutter an assignment creates (eg. textbooks, printouts, dirty cups and plates, etc.) right after you close those tabs, is a great first step!

Tackle that FOMO

Look, we all suffer from FOMO from time to time, but it’s important to recognise that what we see on social media is a highly edited version of life. Remind yourself of what you’re not seeing: the times when people are suffering with self-doubt, having pyjama days in bed, or stressing out about how they’re missing out! You don’t normally put your down moments on social media, so comparing your life to what you see on these feeds is not only stress-inducing, it’s also an impossible goal to reach.

Take a step back, and remember that where you’re at now isn’t where you’ll be forever. Also, everyone’s life plans are completely different, so comparing yourself to others not only detracts from your own achievements, but also breeds feelings of inadequacy and resentment. You’re on your path, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, just make sure you’re doing right by you.


Featured image courtesy of Pexels.


Author: Mia Casey

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