Don't Catch Stress: it's Contagious!
Have you ever been around someone who is draining? It seems like the
only thing they have to say is complaining. No matter how good a
situation is, they always have something bad to say. Their 'you-can’t-do-it' attitude spreads joy and
sunshine much like a crocodile brings relaxation when it wanders into your swimming
Now, I’m not talking about the momentary expression of stress many of
us may unload on caring family, friends, or professionals. I am talking about day in, day out, chronic
tension that spreads like wildfire.
How do you feel around that person?
Tense? Up tight? Stressed?
Once I had a family member over who was obviously having a bad day.
The second she walked in the door, you could feel the tension. She stormed to the kitchen and questioned
every aspect of the food preparation. She barked orders at her husband. Her high strung tone of voice made
every sentence stressful to listen to.
Gradually everyone made their way to the opposite end of the house to
get away from her, leaving only my wife to handle the situation (who by the way, handled it with
I want to point out straight away that we have a pretty good
relationship with this person. She isn’t always a breath of fresh air to be around, but I respect her. She is
very dedicated and reliable. She puts 100% into what she does. She is very thoughtful and has played a role
in our extended family’s wellbeing.
So in essence, a stressed person is still a
It turned out that her stressful behavior was coming from extreme
anxiety. This wasn’t helping anyone, including herself, and she wasn’t in the frame of mind to resolve it.
Instead, she was spreading ‘second hand stress’.
We all have experiences like this. Sometimes they are brief,
sometimes they are a daily experience. Stress actually can “rub off” from others onto us, and vice
We can subconsciously feel other people’s emotions, like an extreme
form of empathy. We can unintentionally reinforce this by mirroring other people’s stressed out body language
and tones of voice.
With the economic pressure that has swept the world in the last 5
years, many a workplace has become rampant with second hand stress.
So how can you stop yourself from getting second hand stress? The
following steps will give you a head start to reduce the impact second hand stress has on
1. Remember the stressed person is a person. Don’t label
them as the enemy! We all go through stress- you yourself have most likely spread stress before too. But you
still need to stop their stress from affecting you.
2. Don’t get drawn in. Remember that they are a separate
person to you, and their stress is separate to yours. When they say things that are stressing them, think a
reassuring thought like “I am so glad I don’t have that problem. My life is better in that
take responsibility for fixing their problems. If you can help then do, and give a listening ear- but if the
stress is still happening after you’ve done what you can, it’s time to step away mentally, and possibly
physically. Some people don’t want help, and some situations are beyond your power to
3. If you actually start to feel that you could also have
the problem, or if you are stressed about their problem, it is a sign that you are over
empathizing. This is when it is essential that you think reassuring thoughts and step
4. Keep your distance if needed. Take a walk if needed.
If you are at work, make sure you get outside and away from the person during lunch. You can also take a 1
minute break to the bathroom or kitchen during specifically stressful
5. At the end of the day,
and during break time, shift your thoughts completely away from the stressful person. Don’t allow yourself to
dwell on how frustrating things are. Focus on the good in your life.
Have a joke with
friends, read an uplifting book, or think of something kind you can do for someone important to you. You can
also reflect on 10 great things about your life. By refocussing on the good in your life, you won’t pass the
stress on to others, and you’ll be a lot happier.
6. Take this as an opportunity to measure your own personal
resistance to second hand stress. We all catch second hand stress in differing degrees. Usually those who are
more empathetic catch it more easily, but also those who take blame for other’s feelings catch it more
If you are particularly
vulnerable to second hand stress, ask yourself “Do I take blame for other people’s upset? Have I ever before?
Is this situation revealing a general pattern in my life?”