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The shoelace factor is a close cousin to the concept of Murphy’s Law. In Murphy’s Law, the general theory is that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, especially when you really need it to go right. In contrast, the shoelace factor is the concept that anything you really need, especially small things like shoelaces, will break at the most inopportune moment. It relates to small errors occurring when you depend most on something to work.
There have been some studies related to how the shoelace factor may be as important when considering overall general stress as are large events such as the death of loved one, a divorce, or the loss of a job. Sometimes the fine details and small stressors tend to have a cumulative effect on stress, and people may seem to respond aggressively or in a panicked and angry matter to these small things. In this sense the shoelace factor can also be related to the terms “the final straw,” or “the straw the broke the camel’s back.” It is not only the broken shoelace that matters, but all the stressful events building up to a blowup when the shoelace does break, or perhaps when the computer crashes.
From a psychological standpoint, many people who have severe depression or anxiety seem to be able to deal with large stressful situations, especially when they’ve over time worked with a therapist and used medication to address their issues. They are often surprised to find that the “little things in life,” still activate panic or depressed responses. Looking for a misplaced set of keys, or dealing with any type of shoelace factor, triggers panic attacks, anxiety or depression, sending patients back to their doctors to figure out why the condition they thought they had control over is flaring up over such tiny details.
The response from most therapists is that it is precisely in these small situations, when we are not well guarded, that the shoelace factor is likely to send us over the edge. Large stressors, even when they are unexpected, are generally something most people deal with well emotionally, eventually. There’s also a variety of support for people when large stressors occur, like divorce support groups, or hospice support groups for people who have lost family members. There are no shoelace factor support groups, though, and perhaps they are equally needed.
It’s important to understand that the shoelace factor is usually a final straw in a variety of small stresses. Take, for example, a family packing for a vacation. People are physically stressed as they run back and forth putting things in the car. Parents are managing kids who are overwhelmed with excited stress about taking a vacation. The car is ready to pull out of the driveway and suddenly a child in the back seat announces that the baby really smells.
Suddenly, mom or dad loses it and responds in an angry fashion. Just when everything is ready to go, and they really needed the baby to stay dry, they suddenly have their metaphorical shoelace factor, and may have to grumble their way back into the house to change the baby before making another start. Everyone in the family may momentarily feel angry, annoyed or panicked because of the amount of stress that has already occurred during that day. Though moods can be restored, the family all, to one degree or another, is victim to the shoelace factor, and a few moments may be needed to recover.