Did you know you other people’s stress is contagious? You may have heard the term ‘secondhand stress’ already….
Secondhand stress is the stress we experience from being around other people who are stressed. Seeing others under stress or in distress triggers our own stress response. Neuroscientists have measured neural activity in the brains of observers. When they observe an emotional response in others, their brains ‘light up’ with a ‘mirroring’ of electrical activity in the same areas of the brain. In fact the neurons involved have been named ‘mirror neurons’ for that very reason!
This mirrored, or secondhand stress can then become a physiological state, in the observer in the same way as it would for the person actually experiencing the emotion for themselves ( albeit less intense ).
Can we still empathise without taking on others stress?
We can’t control life, so inevitably we will be around other people who are stressed and not coping, In our relationships and jobs, sometimes we don’t have the choice to remove ourselves and it is not appropriate to do so. In these instances there are some useful guidelines as to how to strike a balance
- Listen and Acknowledge – do this without ‘going into the pit’ with your friend or colleague. When we are stressed, we want to be heard, maybe even want to ‘vent our spleen’. Take a few moments to be present, listen and show that you’re listening without stepping in with opinions, advise or taking sides or reinforcing the emotional content.
- Remember – Don’t Gossip – don’t get drawn in or ask questions about the details, or who did what etc, even if it is interesting!! – you will be setting yourself up for the continuing saga
- Keep emotional language to a minimum – instead of getting personally involved, choose something neutral yet engaged like ‘yes, these things can be so frustrating can’t they’ or ‘I can imagine how you feel’
- With close friends do not be tempted to make strong statements about other parties especially partners of family members. Once the situation is resolved, you may live to regret these comments.
- Remove yourself from the conversation politely after you have acknowledged and listened. Also remove yourself from the setting as well if you can for a little while, draw the conversation to a close by physically changing your proximity. Close your your body language and move on.
- We teach people how to treat us – by what we stop, what we allow and what we reinforce. Sometimes we are unconsciously encouraging people to actually seek us out to spill all their emotional frustrations. We can become more conscious and intentional of what we are allowing and reinforcing and in order that we subtly shift the dynamic and send out a different message. It is possible to do this with empathy and good manners too.
How will I know if I’m experiencing secondhand stress?
Stress is stress, it is a physiological state in our brains and bodies, at a cellular level, whether it is secondhand or our own! No matter how you arrived at this state it will feel the same. Here are some common examples:
- Raised heart rate, palpitations
- Churning stomach
- Tightness in the chest
- Loss of appetite – or cravings for high calorie food when it returns!
- Problems getting to sleep or poor quality sleep
However, with secondhand stress we can assume that if we are personally not in the stressful situation, the emotional charge and thus the resulting stress will be less.
We might also find that with stress caused by others, we feel like we want to avoid those individuals who are stressing us out, spend less time with them. Maybe we get nervous about being in their company – Do they become the people whose dates we ‘blow out’ even when we are usually pretty reliable?
Why is this term ‘secondhand stress’ becoming so widespread and talked about?
There is a stress epidemic at the moment, people do not have effective stress strategies, and the neurology of stress can become very well established – literally the neural pathways in the brain and body which put us into stress become so well used, that they become etched like a neurological ‘groove’.
We are creating stress with our thoughts as a result of our ‘triggers’ and years of conditioning. Until we learn new strategies en mass, we will all continue to be stressed, and will ‘catch’ the stress of others.
Are there some strategies to help relieve some of the pressure? How and why would we implement them?
Yes, all of the below strategies are about us becoming more consciously aware and taking personal responsibility to take actions and make changes in our lives.
What we are ‘conscious’ of, we can begin to have some control and influence over….Whereas what we are ‘unconscious’ to can begin to control us.
Top Tips to Manage ‘Secondhand Stress’
- Surround yourself with positive people – Begin evaluating the experiences you have with people in your life. Simply decide who makes you feel good, supports you and allows you to feel you can express yourself authentically without having to put on an ‘act’. SPEND MORE TIME WITH THEM!!. Conversely, who causes you stress, judges you, constantly talks about themselves and their issues and doesn’t seem that interested in you and your life? Spend less time with them or eliminate them from your life if you can.
- Remember you often ( aside from work ) have a choice how you spend your time and WHO you spend it with. Choose wisely – energetically we can pick up on negative emotions just by being in the same room as someone, the human electro magnetic energy field is easily as big as the average room. This energy field transmits the emotional and physiological states of other people and can directly affect our own emotions.
- Notice the language people use – people who are negative, pessimistic, moaning, judgemental and in a passive ‘victim mode’ can drag us down. Some people have coined the phrase ‘energy vampires’ or ‘toxic friends’….it is definitely worth re-evaluating your friendships and networks and making some tweaks where you can.
- Create some distance – Creating boundaries and physical distance both work. Physically getting out of the energy field means you are not influenced by the negative and emotionally stressed energy of others. Creating new boundaries and teaching people to expect less of you also works well. Always remember: You TEACH people how to treat you…by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce. Think about how you can handle certain people differently.
- Take less on – We wear stress and being ‘busy’ like a badge of honour nowadays, it has somehow become a benchmark of success…IT IS NOT! Always ask yourself these questions “Is this working for me?”, “What am I getting out of this that is positive?” and “How is this supporting what is important to me?” – This type of question can help you evaluate and choose what you take on and strike a balance between what is genuinely enriching and important, and what you are doing through duty or obligation or out of fear of what other people might think of you.
- Focus more on yourself – Many years of conditioning, and early programming from when we are children can cause us to struggle to form healthy boundaries with others which serve us as well as them. The result of this for many people is that they put others first ( which of course we all need to do sometimes ) and themselves last. Often this is linked with low self-esteem, not feeling we deserve to put ourselves at the top of the list and a fear of being judged or becoming unpopular. Actually how I often help clients to re-frame this, is that by looking after ourselves, by giving ourselves time to rest, to exercise, to eat healthily and take breaks and time off, we are investing in ourselves, our health and our ability to be emotionally resilient. By nurturing ourselves we can bring the best of ourselves to our lives, jobs and most importantly our relationships with other.
If you would like any professional support in managing stress, take a look at these pages of my website for all of the information you will need. Or book onto one of my UK Mind Calm Workshops which take place most Saturdays all over the country: