Secondhand Stress: Stop Obsessing Over Other People’s Problems

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Remember when a family member or friend called to relay some bad news to you and your heart sank too? Human beings are social creatures. Even when something doesn’t happen to us, we can imagine how bad it is for someone else. That’s why you can pick up subtle non-verbal cues in conversations and even react to mass hysteria with panic too.

On the positive side, it’s this ability to pick up information from your environment that has helped human beings survive over the years. However, in a modern world, these same empathetic qualities can also get you into trouble when you start picking up other people’s secondhand stress and letting it affect your life.

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Secondhand Stress: Is It All In Your Imagination?

It almost seems unbelievable; It is like some sort of emotional virus that is released into the air that others soaks up, depending on how vulnerable they are to other people’s problems. However, it has been documented that secondhand stress does exist.

You don’t have to recall how watching a colleague be berated made you stressed too (even when you had nothing to do with the issue), to realize that secondhand stress is real. The bad event may not have happened to you, but you can empathize enough to feel someone else’s pain and emotional distress.

It turns out that this reaction starts as young as when you’re a newborn. A study at the University of California in San Francisco found that when mothers were stressed, babies exhibited stressful responses too. It’s not all in your head!

Secondhand Stress Is Catchy Too

This type of “Emotional Contagion,” a term coined by psychology professor Elaine Hatfield, is also evident when someone becomes depressed or anxious and other people start feeling down and nervous too.

The imagination does play a part in that you start to imagine a similar event might happen to you, but it’s also appears to be just a biologically hardwired response that keeps us informed about the state of the environment and people around us. That’s why when a crowd panics, you’re likely to feel anxious and run too, even if you don’t see anything to cause you alarm.

It’s All Around Us!

In an ideal world, you would be able to avoid stressful situations and people the minute they show up in your space. However, a modern world where people are working 40+ hours a week in an enclosed space naturally leads to stress exposure. Situations arise in our lives, such as:

  • Your manager becomes upset over poor performance numbers.
  • A colleague is undergoing a divorce and talks to you incessantly about it.
  • You are caring for an aging parent who is depressed.
  • A child is being bullied and has anxiety issues in school.
  • Your social network profile is being trolled with negative comments or bad news.
  • A customer is angry because their credit card is declined.
  • Your friend is sick with cancer, etc.

Just reading these types of everyday situations is enough to start making your blood pressure go up, right? You can’t avoid everyone in your life, and you don’t want to, in many cases, because you care about them.

How Can You Deal With Secondhand Stress?

The issue, then, is not how can you avoid secondhand stress altogether, but how will you deal with it when it inevitably shows up at your door?

Sure, you can avoid toxic strangers and bad situations. But more often than not, it’s because you care about someone that you’re only too willing to take on their problems and make them your own. Instead, keep some of these strategies in mind the next time you feel yourself becoming unbalanced by someone else’s stressful situation:

  • Reduce Exposure: Is the bad news all over Facebook or mainstream news really all that important to read minute-to-minute? If it brings you down and makes you stressed, the answer is “no.” If something is happening halfway across the world that stresses you out, turn off the television, take a Facebook break, and read a good book instead
  • Learn from the Buddhists: Learn to stay present in the moment and you can allay a number of anxious thoughts and worries that often stem from “awfulzing” the future. Notice your immediate environment and find things to appreciate about it. Meditate or pray to help you calm your mind.
  • Be Assertive/Set Boundaries: If it’s time for lunch, don’t answer the phone. It’s lunch time. If people get the idea that you have soft boundaries, they’ll walk all over you. If someone corners you to talk about their troubles, tell them know ahead of time you only have a couple of minutes before you must get back to work. If people want to complain around you, you don’t have to join in.
  • Schedule “Me” Time: If your time is over-scheduled because you’ve placed too many demands on yourself, you need to do two things. First, start saying “no” to demands you don’t have time for. And two, schedule in things you’d rather do for yourself, by yourself, on a weekly basis. This “me” time is essential to maintain your joy in life, which yields a natural immunity to secondhand stress. So, go ahead, take that art class and don’t feel guilty!
  • Cultivate a Support System: If you’re still having trouble putting anxious thoughts out of your mind, then seek help. Most workplaces offer Employee Assistance Programs for stressful situations. A therapist can help you develop new mind habits that will ease the secondhand stress through cognitive-behavioral therapy solutions. If the stress is too much, consider trying some natural stress supplements to ease the tension and anxiety.

Get Happy and Stay Happy

If you work on your own mindset and learn techniques to stay positive in most situations, you’ll find that “Negative Nancies” avoid you because you’re not buying into their drama.

A positive attitude can also give other people hope and help them to stress less too. In the same way that a tuning fork echoes a specific note of harmony, you can become that happy and calm note of emotional contagion tuning others to less stress and happiness too.

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Additional Resources

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About the author

Keely
I'm an avid reader and love anything to do with mindfulness and mental health!

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