Is there someone at work who always complains about how busy they are and seems constantly flustered and rushed? Do you have a friend who has to immediately respond to an incoming text no matter where they are or what you are talking about? Or do you know someone going through a tough divorce who desperately needs you to listen? After spending time with these people, do you start to feel agitated yourself? The negative effects of stress, such as increased levels of the hormone cortisol, can be triggered merely by observing a person who is stressed.
Our brains are wired for emotional contagion. Emotions spread via a network of mirror neurons, which are tiny parts of the brain that allow us to empathise with others and understand what they are feeling. When you see someone yawn, mirror neurons can activate, making you yawn. Your brain picks up the fatigue response of someone sitting on the other side of the room. When you experience an emotion, including stress, mirror neurons are thought to fire, stimulating key brain regions. The brain remembers this reaction, so when you see someone else exhibiting the same emotion, the same brain region is activated once again. We feel what they feel.
Mirror neurons mean that you can “catch” negativity, stress, and uncertainty from others without even being aware of it. If someone in your visual field is anxious and highly expressive (either verbally or non-verbally) it is likely you will feel those emotions as well. This negatively impacts upon your brain’s performance. Observing someone who is stressed, especially a work colleague or family member, can have an immediate adverse effect on our own nervous system. One study found that around one quarter of people had elevated levels of cortisol just by watching someone who was stressed. Secondhand stress is more contagious from a romantic partner than a stranger (40%), but when people watched a stressful event on video with strangers, 24% still showed a stress response. Binge watching “Pretty Little Liars” may result in secondhand stress responses.
The cues that cause secondhand stress can be very subtle changes in the people around us, yet they can have huge impacts. You don’t have to see or hear someone to pick up their stress. You can also smell them. Research has shown that stress causes people to sweat special stress hormones, which are picked up by our olfactory senses. Incredibly, your brain can even detect whether the stress hormones were released triggered by low stress or high stress. These “alarm pheromones” activate the amygdala (the region of brain linked to emotional arousal) and basically create stress and threat vigilance in others. Stress is contagious.
In our highly connected world, we are hyper-exposed to other people. Negative emotions and stress become even more contagious as we have high levels of exposure to negative comments on news articles and social media, stressed body language of financial news programs, stressed people on public transport and no privacy in open office plans. In this highly connected world, it is crucial to find ways to improve our emotional immune system.
Change your response: If you create a positive mindset about stress and view the stress response as necessary for performance, research indicates that you will get about a 20% drop in the negative effects of stress. When we see stress as a threat, our bodies and minds miss out on the enhancing effects of stress. Keep in mind you are not “them” – don’t get caught in the stress spiral and take on the negative energy and stories of others.
Create positive antibodies: We need behaviours that can neutralise the negative effects of second hand stress. Instead of mirroring stressed non-verbals, respond with positive body language such as a smile or a nod of understanding. This can short-circuit a negative encounter. The first comment in a conversation often predicts the outcome so choose a positive start rather than “I’m so busy”.
Build natural immunity: One of the greatest buffers against catching secondhand stress is solid self-esteem. This gives you the confidence that you can deal with whatever situations you face in your day. Self-esteem comes from doing hard things well and from how you talk to yourself. Do not give others the power to dictate your mood or your emotional response.
Vaccinate yourself: Vaccinate yourself prior to entering stressful environments through positive strategies such as practicing mindfulness, gratitude, meditation and regular physical exercise.
Mindfulness. When you are in stressful environments, try to ground yourself in the present. Pay close attention to your body and breathing. Just this act of “being present” helps to create space and perspective. You can choose if you wish to stress out or not from here from the safety of your personal bubble.