Have you ever found yourself experiencing periodic feelings of anger, depression, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite/digestion and other typically stress-related symptoms; despite the fact that there was nothing particularly upsetting or stressful going on in your life at that time? If so, you might have experienced what’s known as second hand stress – a very real, but often overlooked form of stress that comes from absorbing the negative emptions of others and that, like second hand smoke, can have a profound impact on our health.
While it might seem strange to think that stress is “contagious”, the fact is that some of us naturally project a lot of emotional energy while others naturally absorb it. Those who absorb energy tend to do so from people they have a close relationship with or from those with whom they spend a lot of time (i.e., friends, family or co-workers). Empathic people also tend to be more likely to suffer from second hand stress due to their emotional sensitivity and women generally seem to be more susceptible (possibly due to a strong nurturing instinct). While we don’t know exactly how emotions are shared, some researchers believe that it involves the “mirror neurons” in our brain that keep us in sync with those around us while others believe pheromones may play a part.
In some ways, second hand stress can be worse than stress caused by our own feelings. Often we don’t understand what’s happening or why and therefore feel completely at its mercy. The good news, however, is that once you’re aware of what’s happening, there are things you can do to control the impact. Here’s a quick overview:
Identify People Under Stress: Pay attention to the emotional states of those close to you prior to your interactions. This will help you distinguish your feelings from theirs as your mood changes.
Separate Your Feelings: Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when you’re picking up on someone else’s emotions but if you observe what happens before, during, and especially after you’ve been around people under stress, you may begin to notice a pattern. For example, if someone around you is pacing, acting impatiently, fidgeting or snapping, check to see how long it takes for you to absorb and then mimic these behaviours or body language. Then, ask yourself if these feelings reflect your experiences or someone else’s (i.e., are you feeling angry or anxious even though everything is good in your world?).
Accept Your Feelings: Try to accept what you’re feeling without dismissing or supressing it. Dismissing or supressing makes things worse. When the feelings resurface, you’ll have lost sight of what caused the feelings in the first place and therefore won’t be able to deal with them as effectively.
Breathe Deeply: Deep breathing is an excellent technique for relaxing and changing your emotional state. Simply take a few deep breaths (from your belly) and exhale completely while letting your mind and body/muscles relax. Try visualizing a relaxing situation or experience, possibly from a more favourable time. You’ll feel the negative energy lift.
Change the Situation: It is possible to protect yourself emotionally while still being compassionate and supportive. Most people who project emotions do so unknowingly – it’s just how they are. Knowing this can help leverage your compassionate nature to help them change their own thoughts & feelings. Help them see the positive side to situations or possible outcomes and help with creative problem solving if needed. Remember, taking action is one of the best ways to counteract worry or fear.
Get Distance/Meditate: If changing the situation doesn’t work, you may have to get some physical distance – even if it’s just for a moment. Try finding a quiet place and practicing your deep breathing and visualizations. On-going meditation is also an excellent tool for keeping/restoring calm, even in the face of emotionally charged situations.
Second hand stress is an often overlooked but very real phenomenon. If you find yourself feeling stressed from time to time for no apparent reason, it’s possible that you’re picking up on someone else’s emotions. However, next time, instead of suffering in silence, try employing the techniques above and you’ll be on your way to a happier, healthier existence.