Imagine this: You hit the gym for a morning workout and stroll into the office on time, ready for the day. Then you catch a glimpse of your coworker, sighing loudly and shuffling through papers. A few minutes later, you start to feel anxious about your looming to-dos. What gives?
Turns out you can actually catch stress, just like you’d catch a cold, says Michelle Gielan, a happiness researcher and author of Broadcasting Happiness. Ever felt jumpy and unable to sleep after an intense episode of Scandal? Or walked down a noisy city street filled with honking cabs and felt your shoulders tense up? You can thank secondhand stress (a.k.a. empathetic stress) for those lovely effects as well.
The Spread of Stress
“Seeing someone else in a stressed state can impact our own hormonal and nervous system responses as if we were experiencing their stress firsthand,” explains Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., a fellow at the American Institute of Stress and author of Stressaholic. It’s one side effect of us being empathetic creatures, which is otherwise a good thing.
Seeing someone else in a stressed state can impact our own hormonal and nervous system responses as if we were experiencing their stress firsthand.
Stress is more likely to spread when you've got emotional ties to the anxious person—a romantic partner, friend, or colleague, Hanna says. Crossover of workplace aggression experiences in dual-earner couples. Haines VY, Marchand A, Harvey S. Journal of occupational health psychology, 2007, Mar.;11(4):1076-8998. But even if it's a stranger, you're not immune.
One study showed that when subjects watched a stressed-out person through a one-way mirror, cortisol levels—one of the hormones related to stress—rose in 26 percent of observers. And if someone's an especially loud talker or hand gesturer, the more his or her stress is likely to spread: Research shows the more someone highly expressive a person is, the more contagious their emotions.
Gielan's own research even found that people who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning were 27 percent more likely to report their day as “unhappy” six to eight hours later, compared to people who watched uplifting stories. Other studies have had similar results: Negative TV can translate to real-life negative emotions.
How It Affects Your Health
Whether you’re catching it from an anxious colleague, enraged cab driver, or even a character on CSI, secondhand stress can have very real consequences.
“The effects of secondhand stress are the same as chronic stress,” Hanna says. “Stress does not cause disease to happen, but it speeds up the development of anything that might be wrong in the body or brain.” Unmanaged chronic stress has been linked to all major diseases and disorders, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and dementia.
And while you've known about secondhand smoke for years, research indicates that high stress levels have the same effect as smoking five cigarettes per day—upping your risk of heart disease by 27 percent.
Plus, it can lead to a general "blah" feeling. “When stress continues to be a problem, we feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and burnt out," Hanna says. "Our brain chemistry is so depleted that the lens through which we see the world is literally dark and gloomy.”
But don't be bummed! There are ways you can guard yourself—we've rounded up the best below.
Ways to Make Yourself Immune
1. Say hi.
It doesn’t get much easier than this. “Smile and say hello to coworkers who you may not usually speak to,” Gielan says. Simply connecting with people sends a positive message to your brain that’s beneficial both immediately and in the long run: Strong social support has been shown to be the greatest predictor of long-term happiness. Plus, spreading the love is good for business: One hospital that implemented this idea (they called it the 10/5 rule—smile at people who pass within 10 feet of you, and say hello to anyone within five feet) saw improvements in patient satisfaction, patient visits, and overall revenue within one year.
2. Hit pause.
Take a few deep breaths before communicating or interacting with others when you’re feeling anxious, Hanna suggests. It’s also super easy to spread stressful vibes via email (just say no to caps lock!), so it’s a good idea to save messages as drafts first and spend a few extra moments re-reading to make sure your tone isn’t abrasive.
3. Change your focus.
Find a way to block out negativity and stress, Gielan says. Stuck in a cubicle next to a coworker who’s always complaining or sighing? Use noise-cancelling headphones, reorient your chair, or put up pics of your family so your attention is re-focused on something positive.
4. Lead with positivity.
“One of the biggest ways we transfer stress is verbally,“ Gielan explains, “so jump-starting a conversation with a positive statement can set the tone in a different place.” Instead of starting off a meeting saying, “I’m so stressed, my head is all over the place!” try something light-hearted: “I just had the best turkey and avocado sandwich for lunch. How’s your day going?” Not only is this a super easy way to protect yourself against secondhand stress, but it can also have a ripple effect and reduce stress for others around you, Gielan says. (Find more tips to spread positivity at work here.)
5. Exercise in the morning.
“Going to the gym for 30 minutes registers as a big win for your brain,” Gielan says. And you've probably heard exercise boosts your mood, helping set a positive tone for the rest of your day. Not only can it help make you immune from stressed-out folks around you, but lower stress levels can also help you deal with other challenges as they come your way—like tackling that urgent project your boss gives you, Gielan adds. (Not a morning person? Try these hacks to make getting up for a.m. workouts a breeze.)
6. Reset your response.
Next time you see a grumpy colleague huffing and puffing down the hallway or your partner comes home irritated after a long day, try to identify what’s happening, Gielan says. Say (silently) to yourself, “Wow, she/he is really stressed out,” and try to bring a sense of compassion to that person, Gielan suggests. “Sending positive vibes toward them—instead of mindlessly absorbing their negativity—takes away their power to influence your mood.”
7. Schedule time for yourself.
Make a point to step out of the office to recharge during a crazy day—and actually put it on your calendar. Go to a coffee shop, walk in the park, go to a bookstore, get a manicure—whatever it is, these recharge "appointments" should be just as important as any other client or team meeting you have during the day, Hanna says.
8. Limit distractions.
In our hyper-connected world, it’s easy to feel high-strung vibes from all directions—the conference room, your computer, your cell phone. In response, try to turn off distractions as much as possible, Hanna suggests. Check your email only during certain time blocks so you’re not fighting a losing battle (respond to one message, receive five more). If you’re lucky enough to have an office to yourself, close the door when you’re in “focus mode”—maybe even put up a sign asking people to come back in 30 minutes. (If not, message colleagues to let them know you're totally focused for the next hour.)
9. Just breathe.
All of the talk about mindfulness has to have some value, right? It does, Gielan says. Next time you’re feeling stressed, take two minutes, take your hands off your keyboard, and simply notice your breath going in and out. “This is single-tasking in the midst of a multi-tasking world, and it trains your brain to focus on peace, rather than being scatter-brained and pulled toward stresses,“ Gielan says. “Then you can return to work less likely to be swayed by negative things.”
10. Bring it up—nicely.
If there’s one person in your life seriously harshing your mellow, it may be worth having a sit-down chat—as long as you have a solid relationship with that person, Gielan says. Think: How much social capital do you have with that person? What’s your relationship like? What’s their possible reaction? If they’re likely to get easily offended, it may be best to leave it alone. But if you can talk to them, do it in a loving way so they can better understand their influence on other people.