Time and again, studies show that stress is contagious. And scientists assure us that humans’ inclinations to get swept up in each other’s moods and stressors is hardwired inside brain cells called mirror neurons—giving us the desirable qualities of empathy and the ability to understand each other on an emotional level.
But how can we keep stressed-out colleagues, family members, patients or customers from affecting us too much? How do you insulate yourself from a boss who’s always stressed out and yelling? Or from a close co-worker who’s hit a rough patch and takes an inordinate amount of time venting to you each morning?
Sometimes these stressed-out individuals simply love the drama. Or they may be facing some hidden, temporary personal challenges …. And even if you’re fortunate, and your anxious co-worker is suffering quietly—trying to keep his or her concerns to himself—we are not immune. We are just as inclined to pick up on unintentional, nonverbal signals.
Experts tell us that dealing with secondhand stress is a lot like dealing with any stress. Finding ways to regain some level of control helps us cope and makes us less susceptible to its effects.
Ways to cope with secondhand stress:
Our first natural inclination when we encounter a stressed-out individual is to put some distance between ourselves, suggests huffpost. But if that individual happens to be your boss, your spouse or a co-worker with whom you deal extensively, avoidance isn’t necessarily an option.
- Anticipate triggers and prepare. If the stress of one colleague in particular affects you, take a moment to consider what you’re feeling in these encounters. Identify patterns in the way you react and give thought to how to stay more aloof (if that response would serve you better). “Oh that must be so frustrating for you” is sympathetic yet nonparticipatory. Also consider if your colleague’s voiced work concerns cause you to second-guess your own work or future. Acknowledge these fears (to yourself) and consider if there are things you can proactively do to eliminate your worries. (These concerns may actually give you a jump start on preparing for upcoming challenges.)
- Learn to relax. End the noise of an always-ranting co-worker by plugging in your music headphones. Learn to consciously breathe, slowing your heart rate and keeping yourself relaxed and in control so you can make good decisions and maintain perspective. Remind yourself that the person’s issues have nothing to do with you, suggests shape.com. This reminder will help make your brain less likely to mimic their stress.
- Set better boundaries and limits with challenging colleagues. Talk to the person and let them know the effect their behavior is having on you or your group. Learn to gracefully remove yourself from conversations without seeming insensitive. Don’t join in conversations where you can simply listen instead.
- Identify when to help and when to step away. You are not a crutch, suggests telegraph.co.uk. If a co-worker is temporarily overly burdened and your help will enable them to catch up or relieve pressure, jumping in seems logical. However, it’s harder to be sympathetic if their busyness is continual or stems from a lack of planning or ability. “Would you like me to check in with our boss to see if he’s okay with my helping you out?” keeps your boss (and co-worker) in the loop if you’ve decided to offer temporary assistance.
- Spread positivity. Smile and say hello to co-workers and customers. Strong social networks make us happier and more resilient. Positive interactions help cut stress, suggests greatest.com. Begin conversations positively. Complaining can start a ripple effect, so consider ways to begin that help others stay positive. If the stressed person is a friend or someone with whom you work closely, allowing them to vent can help them relieve stress. You’re the judge on how available you want to be for these confidences, and it will be up to you to draw the line.
Dealing with secondhand stress is a lot like dealing with any stress. Find ways to regain control of the situation—whether that’s occasionally helping out an overwhelmed colleague, learning to set better limits or forging ahead by simply maintaining your own sunny disposition.