Emotions are contagious. This includes feeling stressed. If you’re around people who are stressed and negative all the time, that’s how you’re going to feel too. Today I’m talking about how to deal with this secondhand stress.

Secondhand Stress: 5 ways to save yourself and help others

Have you ever been rolling along having a pretty good day only to run into someone that is most definitely NOT having a good a day. You ask them how they are or if you can help and they vomit their stressful feelings all over you. They’re likely still as miserable as they were before and they’ve drug you down with them?

For some of you this might be an every day experience.

I used to work with a woman who I viewed as a vacuum cleaner. Anyone that was around her would be sucked into her negativity vortex and once they would get away they would feel miserable and drained.

People like this are energy vampires.

If you know someone like this you know this feeling.

The reason that energy vampires leave you feeling so negative and stressed after your encounters with them is because emotions are contagious.

Humans are essentially pack animals. Ancient man wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for the tribe. And one of the keys getting to stay in the tribe was being enough like everyone else to all get along and work together.

The way that we manage to be like each other is due to what’s called mirror neurons in our brains. We see someone smile, we smile back. We see someone yawn, we yawn. We see someone stressed and our cortisol levels go up.

This phenomena of other peoples stress, stressing us out has come to be known as secondhand stress. Just like secondhand smoke is dangerous to your physical health, secondhand stress is dangerous to mental wellbeing.

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SECONDHAND STRESS IS EVERYWHERE

If you live in a large city you may come in contact with hundreds of people a day. All the people that are on the train or bus with you, people you see as you walk by, coworkers, friends, family, AND everyone else you see via your social media feed.

You don’t just get secondhand stress from people that you talk to or even people you hear. You can get stressed just from seeing someone else being stressed. In fact 26% of people had elevated cortisol just from seeing someone they didn’t know be stressed.

You can also get secondhand stress from written communication. Emails, texts, social media all matter. In our caustic political climate, just seeing posts from people that are negative or angry can increase your cortisol.

If you work in an open office, or even in a cubicle style office, you’re likely to catch someone else’s stress. Seeing stressed facial expressions from across the room, overhearing an angry phone conversation, or even smelling (yes smelling) the sweat from someone who is stressed nearby is enough to increase your cortisol.

It’s no wonder that you might start off having a great morning, but as soon as you walk into work you feel the weight of the world on you. If you work with a bunch of stressed out people, just going in the room, looking around, and taking a breath can be enough secondhand stress to take you down a peg.

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DEALING WITH SECONDHAND STRESS

While there is no such thing as a stress free life, especially in today’s hectic world, there are still plenty of healthy ways to deal with stress.

In fact low levels of stress actually help you perform better and be more satisfied with your results and life in general. It’s the chronic high stress levels that can send us into burnout.

But if you’re always running on a low level of stress and then everyone else around you is stressed, this likely pushes you over into high stress mode. Which then can affect others around you making them even more stressed.

This downward cycle of stress is likely to cause serious problems if the individuals within the tribe are not managing their stress on their own.

Dealing with secondhand stress is a two fold venture. Part of the strategy is managing your own stress as best you can so that you’re not bringing that baggage around with you and effecting others in a negative way.

The other portion is about how you manage your interactions with those around you that are in stressed out states. You might find that you can be the tipping point for a group dynamic that can take it from negative to positive.

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SECONDHAND STRESS MANAGEMENT STARTS AT HOME

Maintenance

Seeing as how I stressed myself right into burnout I have written a lot here about stress. If you would like to read more on dealing with stress please check out here, here, here, and here.

The short version is that you need to have some positive practices for yourself to keep your stress low and maintain a positive outlook. According to Shawn Achor 5 of the best ways to do this are:

  • writing a 2 minute email praising someone you know
  • writing down 3 things you’re grateful for
  • journaling about a positive experience for two minutes
  • doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes
  • meditating for just 2 minutes

You don’t need to do all 5, but these are a good place to start to build yourself a positive mental outlook. They either boost your happiness via gratitude and giving, give your brain mood boosting endorphins, or separate your brain from your stress.

There are many other ways to do these things as well so experiment and see what works for you. But given that most of these things only take a couple of minutes, there’s no excuse to put it off.

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Prevention

Everyone knows prevention is the best medicine, right? So the best way to stay positive is to avoid negativity in the first place. Obviously it’s impossible to avoid every person who is stressed out, but if there are people in your life that are chronically stressed and/or are energy vampires it’s time to start limiting your interactions.

Some people can be helped in terms of literally helping them with ideas or by simply being a shoulder to cry on – but these are not the people to whom I am referring.

The energy vampires are the ones who no matter how much you talk to them it still doesn’t improve their mood. These are the people whose favorite hobby is whining and complaining and simply don’t know how to communicate any other way.

They will always find the negative side of any situation and look to bring down anyone else they can in their wake.

If you have people like this, do what you can to minimize your interaction. Try to counter their frowns with smiles and have something positive to say for their negative comments.

While it will not be possible to improve the worst offenders who are hell bent on theirs (and others) misery, at least you can attempt to deflect their negativity and turn it into positivity. What this does is let you to at least attempt to improve their situation instead of simply allowing them to ruin yours.

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Mindset

Possibly THE MOST important thing about our stress management is how we view stress. If you believe that it will help you work better/faster/stronger then it will. If you view it as a knock down drag out fight where stress is going to take you down, then it will.

Instead of viewing stressful situations as a battle to be won, see it as a symbiotic relationship. Sure it would be nice if the stress would leave your body, but if you view it as something that is helping you, instead of harming you, then your body will react in a positive way.

By changing the way that you view the stress you already have, you can change your entire outlook. Instead of the stress making you grumpy and more willing to lash out at others, it will make you laser focused and energized.

It sounds ridiculous to think that all you have to do is see it in a different light to have it affect you differently, but that is the amazing effect that mindset has on our systems. That which you focus on you, you get more of.

So focus on the positive effects of stress, and you will get more positive effects.

Secondhand Stress: 5 ways to save yourself and help others

MANAGING SECONDHAND STRESS IN THE WILD

As I said earlier your stress is never going to go away. And unless you’re going to move to a yurt in the mountains and become a hermit, other people’s stress isn’t going to go away either. However there are better ways to handle situations with stressed individuals to help move it in a positive direction.

Empathy

Unless the person that you’re encountering is a known energy vampire, don’t just run away from their stress. You have the capacity to be the person that helps change their energy from overwhelmed to well managed.

While stress is contagious it doesn’t necessarily just leap from one individual to the next like a virus. One person can help another to mold the energy and deal with it so that it’s no longer caustic.

This is achieved through empathy.

Empathy is the act of listening to someone and understanding their struggles. Sometimes it is enough just to allow someone to talk to you and let them know that they have been heard. Listening to understand is a disappearing art form in today’s society. Most people listen to respond. Listening to respond doesn’t create the same type of connection as simply listening to understand.

If the person that you’re talking to asks for help you might also be able to change their energy by working through their problem with them. Another perspective or an actual offer of assistance may be what they need to cope with their stress.

By being empathetic and offering help where appropriate you can help a stressed individual turn around their energy. This helps all the people that will encounter this person later in the day and will boost both of your moods towards the positive instead of simply adding to your stress loads.

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Catalyst

Just like there are people who can suck the life out of you, there are people who seem to light up a room. These people know that secret that your energy has the capacity to be a force for good.

Instead of focusing on trying to drag up the worst energy offenders, focus on being the tipping point for the people who are on the fence. Many of us hang out in neutral and really could go either way. If you focus on these people, then you have a chance to change the entire mood of the room.

People that are happy perform better. And they will take that happiness with them and effect the world with it.

It also has the added bonus of creating a sort of habit. When people are in your presence they to tend to focus on the good side of things as opposed to the bad. This will help everyone to mitigate their stress levels and not to pass their stress on to each other.

While there may be some who are always negative and can’t be swayed, if you help swing the majority of the room towards positivity you can help to prevent the negative people from dragging others down with them.

And while it’s completely unrealistic for anyone to be happy all the time, doing some or all of the exercises outlined above will certainly help keep you focused on positive things and reduce stress.

Also just taking a moment to focus your energy before you go rushing off to a meeting can make all the difference. Try this super quick exercise below. It won’t take more than a couple of minutes and it might be what you need to affect an entire room of people to be less stressed and more positive.

  • Taking a few deep breaths (box breathing is great – inhale for 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds)
  • Mentally let go whatever frustrating or stressful things that are on your mind
  • Think about your body and notice wherever you might be tensing up – often shoulders, jaw, fists, or core/stomach – and relax those parts
  • Picture letting go of your negative energy and stress and growing your positive energy. I do a self made exercise where I envision myself exhaling the stress as a black smoke and inhaling sunshine to replace it. Use whatever imagery works for you.

BE SURE TO SHARE

Once you have found a system that works for you, share it with the world. It’s not enough to just carry around positive energy and share it with others, you need to teach others how they can make their own. Don’t just be the force for good, teach the world to do the same.

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