Did you know that stress is contagious and can spread like the flu?! It’s true, research shows that it’s possible to catch the emotions of others. It’s called emotional contagion or secondhand stress. Stress which often describes higher levels of anxiety, worry and frustration can get passed around in relationships, friendships and at work.
According to Harvard Business Review, secondhand stress is 40% more contagious from a partner than it is from a stranger. “Research shows that stress causes people to sweat special stress hormones, which are picked up by the olfactory senses of others. Your brain can even detect whether the “alarm pheromones” were released due to low stress or high stress. Negativity and stress can literally waft into your cubicle” (Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress, Shawn Achor & Michelle Gielan). WOW let’s take a second to reflect and think about that!
Here are some ways to ward off secondhand stress:
Reflection: Now that you know about secondhand stress, take some time to reflect on the people in your life. Do you surround yourself with high stress people? If so, think about how you react to their stress. Self-awareness and awareness are power to promote change and will make the stress easier to control.
Don’t Mirror Negativity: If someone is venting or communicating with heightened emotions, don’t mirror emotions back. Instead, listen or provide a more positive perspective.
Use Gratitude: Start the day off with identifying what you’re grateful for. This can help offset the negative thoughts of others. If you want to take it one step further write it down.
Work on your Self-Esteem: Good self-esteem helps to increase your confidence so that you can handle whatever comes your way. Remember my previous blog -- exercise is a great way to build self-esteem!
Surround Yourself with Things That Make You Happy: As I type this, right in front of me, there is a picture of Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom and Vanilla Bean Noel hand sanitizer, my favorite scent. This stuff works! Have fun and create a happy space.
Remind yourself that you’re not responsible for other people's feelings: I say this often but after writing this blog about emotional contagion -- I’m starting to rethink this one… kidding. YOU’RE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S FEELINGS. Sometimes we can’t help but let our empathy take over. Being overly empathetic isn’t helpful because then more people feel down. It’s important to find your balance. You need to separate the other person's mind from your own.
While nobody is immune to emotional contagion or secondhand stress, you can learn how to prevent it from bringing you down. And just like the flu or cold, stress is emotionally draining no matter how you contract it. If taking on the emotions of others impacts daily functioning, counseling could be the prescription you need. Increase your self-awareness and self-esteem, learn new coping skills, practice healthier thinking, and learn to create boundaries with empathy. As therapists, we are exposed to high anxiety, stress, and big emotions all the time, so why not learn from one of us? Also, if you were my client and worried about catching secondhand stress, I'd gladly point out there’s just as much of a chance you could catch some HAPPY! Yup, that’s some CBT right there for ya 😉 YOU GOT THIS!