A traffic jam at night

How to Feel Less Frustrated by Small Things

By Jessica Hicks
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
March 25, 2024

Living in New York City comes with many privileges—and a fair share of daily frustrations. Among my least favorite are:

  • Missing the subway by a millisecond while making eye contact with a passenger who couldn’t be bothered to hold the door
  • The amount of dog excrement on the sidewalks
  • Groups of people walking three- or four-people-wide along the sidewalk, blocking everyone else's path

But frustrations can be found everywhere, whether you live in the city, suburbs, or a rural area. Usually, we’re able to brush them off. But sometimes, those seemingly miniscule annoyances add up. When they do, a minor frustration can suddenly make our blood boil more than a true grievance.

Why Little Frustrations Can Have a Big Impact

“At a basic level, I find when we’re easily irritated, our biological needs aren't being met,” says Lisa Manca, a licensed professional clinical counselor based in San Francisco. “Maybe it’s food, sleep, or something else.”

In some cases, you may get easily frustrated because you’re already at your breaking point. “Perhaps you kept your emotions in check at work all day by thinking about a concert you’re going to that night,” explains Lisa Stephen, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist and health and wellness coach based in Jericho, Vermont. “But when you arrive, you’re stuck sitting next to someone loudly chomping on gum.”

You may also hit the frustration point sooner if you’re already coping with other sources of stress or mental health challenges. “Imagine each time something stressful occurs, you add liquid to a bucket,” explains Amy Smith, a counseling psychologist based in Hertfordshire, England. If you’re already dealing with a lot of anxiety or other difficult emotions, even the smallest drop is enough to make the bucket overflow.

It's important to develop tools to better weather frustration when it strikes. One study suggests that a higher frustration tolerance is often linked to better well‑being, whereas additional research indicates that those with lower frustration tolerance may have higher stress levels and risk of anxiety and depression.

How to Improve Your Frustration Tolerance

Try these simple steps to stay calm and collected.

Know Your Triggers

Getting familiar with your frustration hot spots may help you better manage your emotional response. When you notice yourself becoming flustered, Smith suggests asking:

  • What happened?
  • Who was I with?
  • What was I doing?

“Then, you can begin to identify your early warning signs of frustration,” Smith adds. Some other questions she recommends asking yourself:

  • What common thoughts do I have when I start becoming frustrated? Do I start to think, “This isn’t fair,” or “They shouldn’t get away with this?”
  • What do I do when I start to feel frustrated? Do I start to pace, jump between tasks, or fidget?
  • How do I feel physically? Do I start to feel overheated, shaky, or out of breath?

“If you have a good grasp of your triggers and warning signs, you can more easily spot them and intervene before things escalate,” Smith says. You could remove yourself from the situation, talk things through with a trusted friend, or think back to a happier time and place.

Go Back to the Basics

A quick way to get to the bottom of your frustration is by asking yourself what you need in the moment.

Manca suggests asking yourself, How am I feeling? What do I need? Such straightforward questions may push you to realize you’re overstretched and need some downtime, or that skipping breakfast has left you feeling hangry. Then, you can course-correct and find your calm.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

Sometimes, you just need to sit with frustration. “Notice, in a nonjudgmental way, where you feel the frustration in your body,” Smith says. “If you could give it shape and color, what would it look like? Try to make space for this—allow the feeling to be there.” Once you let your frustration wash over you, you may have an easier time letting it pass and moving forward.

Breathe Through It

In stressful situations, controlling your breath has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and promote relaxation. In fact, Stephen argues it’s perhaps the most essential first step in coping with frustration. To make deep breathing more of a habit, Stephen suggests turning to it in nonstressful situations, like before eating a meal or as you settle into sleep.

“It’s what we do when the frustration isn’t there that sets the foundation for coping when frustration hits,” Stephen says.

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