Second-Hand Stress

How to avoid catching it

Second-Hand Stress

Stress is contagious. When one person is anxious, frazzled, or tense, others pick up subconscious signals that could boost their stress and anxiety levels too.

Stress is contagious. When one person is anxious, frazzled, or tense, others pick up subconscious signals that could boost their stress and anxiety levels too.

How is stress caught?

Do you feel wound up when someone close, such as a co-worker, family member, or friend, tells you they are stressed? Learning about another person’s predicament often leaves us sharing in their anguish.

But long before we are aware of it, earlier and more subtle signs of stress—a facial expression, gesture, or even a whiff of someone’s nervous sweat—can affect us. These signals act through a very primitive part of our brain: the autonomic nervous system.

This system houses mirror neurons, which are brain cells with the unique ability to map the actions of others onto our own pathway of motor nerves. Mirror neurons fire automatically when an action is carried out, but also when that same action is observed. If you watch someone furrow their brow, the neurons required to furrow your own brow activate, although your facial expression does not change.

The same process can also simulate—and stimulate—the feelings linked to the actions we observe. The furrowed brow signals anger, and your own mood suddenly drops. In this way, the autonomic response can lead to emotional contagion and the transfer of a negative mood or mental state, including stress.

Through the looking glass

While mirror neurons kick-start the stress response, a closer look into the autonomic nervous system shows how it has also evolved so we can help each other cope with tough times. Mirror neurons are activated in infancy, and enable learning through imitation. Eventually, we begin to understand the meaning behind facial expressions and gestures, allowing us to communicate, socialize, and empathize with other people.

In other words, the immediate functions of the autonomic nervous system can lead to a change in mood and the transfer of second-hand stress. But the area of the brain containing mirror neurons allows us to further decode expressions and gestures.

By recognizing and imitating other people’s actions, mirror neurons also help us understand what they are going through. In this way we are able to relate to the other person’s predicament, providing support and encouragement.

Workplace worries

The workplace is a prime location for catching stress. High workload and an unclear job role, for example, can lead to physical illness, anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction, and poor performance.

When the paperwork piles up and deadlines approach, we show physical signs of anxiety and frustration. A buried head or a weary glance is enough to get mirror neurons firing and increase tension among co-workers.

But while our neighbour in the next cubicle might be spreading stress, developing relationships with co-workers can also protect us from the ill effects of a hard day. For example, social support from other employees can buffer stress at work. In addition, identifying with teammates helps adjustment in stressful circumstances, while boosting job satisfaction and psychological well-being.

Stress at home

As the holidays approach, stress at home is certain to peak thanks to last-minute shopping, a burnt casserole or two, and countless visits with the in-laws. The transfer of negative emotions tends to occur in intimate relationships, making the home a prime breeding ground for infectious moods.

Relationship-focused coping is a key measure for helping loved ones combat stress. It involves providing support while avoiding saying or doing things that might burden the other person. This method is especially effective when anxiety is caused by a factor outside of the relationship, because, in this instance, we are more willing to tolerate negative emotions.

Just showing you understand another person’s toil is sometimes as helpful as providing affection and assistance. Other times, tangible or practical help, including knowledge and advice, can help resolve an issue, while offering care or sympathy toward another person can also buffer second-hand stress.

Avoid the epidemic

Unfortunately there is no quick cure for second-hand stress. Remember, too much tension leaves you susceptible to other contagions, such as a cold or the flu, and chronic stress can lead to more serious illnesses, such as insomnia or heart disease.

Avoid the epidemic by recognizing signs in people you spend time with, and learn to best manage your own mood in order to keep others from catching this season’s strain.

Curb the contagion: tips to avoid second-hand stress

  • Recognize signs of stress in others and learn to regulate your response by practising stress management techniques.
  • Offer support to friends, family, and workmates; the better they can cope, the less chance there is of sharing in their stress.
  • Tell the other person how their mood is affecting you, and be willing to help as long as it doesn’t increase your stress further.
  • Reserve time for yourself; have a break and do something you enjoy to relieve tension.

Stress less: simple ways to keep calm

  • Herbal extracts including skullcap (Skutellaria), hops (Humulus lupulus), and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) relieve stress and can improve sleep.
  • A healthy lifestyle including regular exercise will boost your resilience to stress.
  • L-theanine, an amino acid derived from green tea (Camellia sinensis) helps relaxation while enhancing your focus and attention to tasks.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction is an effective technique involving physical relaxation, sitting meditation, hatha yoga, and nonjudgmental awareness of internal and external experiences.

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