Secondhand Stress

We have all heard about the dangers of secondhand smoke, but did you know you now need to protect yourself from secondhand stress?

stressIf you are like me, you may be more susceptible to others’ stress. More times than not, I find myself unconsciously taking on the stress from those whom I most care about. The final days in our home were filled with major cleaning, minor repairs, and final packing. We were moving into an unknown phase of our lives. It was a difficult time in general however I started to notice irrational, unprovoked bouts of irritability and cloudiness which seemed to come out of nowhere. Practicing what I preach, I began to investigate the situations and events around the attacks. When I was alone my stress was less. When I was with my husband, who was sharing our major transition, my stress tended to double. I began to realize that I was not only dealing with my stress but I was taking on the stress energy my husband was emitting.

Taking on others emotions is a fact of being human. Tiny mirror neurons in our brains provide the ability to empathize with others and understand their feelings. Interestingly this is the same system that makes us yawn when others yawn. We are connected to each other’s feelings. Basically if we are around someone who is overly emotional, whether they are verbally expressing it or not, we tend to experience those same emotions. To me this goes back to our animalistic intuitive nature, being able to sense people’s feelings without cognitively knowing.  In fact our unconscious reactions are due to our neurological ability to recognize potential threats by reading others. What I didn’t realize is the potential negative effect we experience from recognizing others’ emotions.

Research now shows how we not only experience the feeling but the corresponding physiological response. For instance, a quarter of the people tested experienced increased cortisol levels just by watching someone who is stressed. The same effect happened whether the person was nearby or if the situation was being watched on video. We feel what we see others experiencing and our body responds accordingly. If you don’t believe me, next time you are watching a horror or adventure movie (or Dancing with the Stars) check in every once in a while with your body. Are your shoulders tight? Are you on the edge of your seat? Is your heart racing? The thrill of those movies is the experience of going through the same physical response as the heroine. The entertainment industry has realized this as they now know people can get the same high of a roller coaster by just viewing it in IMAX, not actually doing it ourselves.

So how do we counterbalance this innate ability?

Acceptance and empathy are two ways to protect yourself in the moment.

Acceptance: When we notice we are stressed we often immediately fight against being stressed or want to fix the thing stressing us. But when we are picking up other people’s stress we have limited control of the situation. Instead, accept that you are experiencing stress. An emotion uncharged with thinking washes over us within seconds. If we fight it, add to it with our thinking, or get angry that we are feeling a certain way, we make the feeling last. Notice what you are feeling, recognize it, and then simply release it by not feeding it more.

Empathy: Once you realize it is someone else’s stress find compassion for them. Again our initial reaction may be to try to fix the other or to become angry about being affected by them. Instead nurture, love, and support the individual who is going through the stress. This not only helps them shift and feel connected, it provides you with positive endorphins which fend off stress.

To ward off future attacks, create daily habits as protective barriers to others’ stress.

  • Smile: When we smile endorphins which support happiness and lower stress levels are released. No matter what anyone is feeling around you, you can “inoculate” yourself by putting on a smile. Even if it is a fake smile the movements of the muscles in your face trigger the same endorphin release.
  • Word Choice: When we start talking about negativity and overwhelm, our body reacts. Keep your words positive and hopeful to keep you from falling down the slippery slope of stress.
  • Gratitude: Write a daily list of everything that is wonderful in your life. Yes, there is always something no matter how small. These daily reminders keep us focused on the positive.

We may not be able to directly change the stress being experienced by another, but we can change how much of their stress we take on.

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