Seeing someone else in a stressed state can impact our own hormonal and nervous system responses as if we were experiencing their stress firsthand.
Stress Is Actually Contagious
Stress is more likely to spread when you’ve got emotional ties to the anxious person—a romantic partner, friend, or colleague. But even if it’s a stranger, you’re not immune. One study showed that when subjects watched a stressed-out person through a one-way mirror, cortisol levels—one of the hormones related to stress—rose in 26 percent of observers. Negative TV can translate to real-life negative emotions.
How It Affects Your Health
Stress does not cause disease to happen, but it speeds up the development of anything that might be wrong in the body or brain. Plus, it can lead to a general “blah” feeling. When stress continues to be a problem, we feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and burnt out. Our brain chemistry is so depleted that the lens through which we see the world is literally dark and gloomy.
So What Do You DO About It?
Take a few deep breaths before communicating or interacting with others when you’re feeling anxious. It’s also super easy to spread stressful vibes via email (just say no to caps lock!), so it’s a good idea to save messages as drafts first and spend a few extra moments re-reading to make sure your tone isn’t abrasive.
Change your focus.
Find a way to block out negativity and stress. Stuck in a cubicle next to a coworker who’s always complaining or sighing? Use noise-cancelling headphones, reorient your chair, or put up pics of your family so your attention is re-focused on something positive.
Lead with positivity.
One of the biggest ways we transfer stress is verbally, so jump-starting a conversation with a positive statement can set the tone in a different place. Instead of starting off a meeting saying, “I’m so stressed, my head is all over the place!” try something light-hearted: “I just had the best turkey and avocado sandwich for lunch. How’s your day going?” Not only is this a super easy way to protect yourself against secondhand stress, but it can also have a ripple effect and reduce stress for others around you.
Exercise in the morning.
Going to the gym for 30 minutes registers as a big win for your brain. And you’ve probably heard exercise boosts your mood, helping set a positive tone for the rest of your day. Not only can it help make you immune from stressed-out folks around you, but lower stress levels can also help you deal with other challenges as they come your way—like tackling that urgent project your boss gives you.
Reset your response.
Next time you see a grumpy colleague huffing and puffing down the hallway or your partner comes home irritated after a long day, try to identify what’s happening. Say (silently) to yourself, “Wow, she/he is really stressed out,” and try to bring a sense of compassion to that person. Sending positive vibes toward them—instead of mindlessly absorbing their negativity—takes away their power to influence your mood.
Schedule time for yourself.
Make a point to step out of the office to recharge during a crazy day—and actually put it on your calendar. Go to a coffee shop, walk in the park, go to a bookstore, get a manicure—whatever it is, these recharge “appointments” should be just as important as any other client or team meeting you have during the day. Also consider your gym time, time with friends and family and things for YOU important too. Schedule yourself a massage!
In our hyper-connected world, it’s easy to feel high-strung vibes from all directions—the conference room, your computer, your cell phone. In response, try to turn off distractions as much as possible. Check your email only during certain time blocks so you’re not fighting a losing battle (respond to one message, receive five more). If you’re lucky enough to have an office to yourself, close the door when you’re in “focus mode”—maybe even put up a sign asking people to come back in 30 minutes. (If not, message colleagues to let them know you’re totally focused for the next hour.)
All of the talk about mindfulness has to have some value, right? It does. Next time you’re feeling stressed, take two minutes, take your hands off your keyboard, and simply notice your breath going in and out. This is single-tasking in the midst of a multi-tasking world, and it trains your brain to focus on peace, rather than being scatter-brained and pulled toward stresses. Then you can return to work less likely to be swayed by negative things. Learn some new meditation skills that can help give you a quick reset.