There you were, basking blissfully in your current (if temporary) status as bride-to-be, dreaming already of the Maui honeymoon, cool and unruffled as you are naturally inclined to be. Until IT began to get to you. A mother with way too many anxieties and opinions about your wedding; an event manager with attitude (forcefully reminding you of Martin Short in “Father of the Bride”); a brother who’s losing sleep over the guest list; a father who’s hyper-ventilating about the budget; a sister who keeps reminding you that Murphy said that anything that can go wrong probably will.
Until, in the end, their collective stress percolated down to you, and you too began feeling anxious and agitated. And, pushed finally beyond your limit, you snapped at your fiancé over nothing at all.
It was other people’s stress. Until you internalized it and made it your own. Psychologists today are calling this “second-hand stress”. Or passive stress (as in “passive smoking”). And it’s fast becoming endemic. Surveys show it’s a major factor contributing to the rising levels of stress across the socio-economic landscape.
The fact that a problem shared is apparently no longer halved but multiplied encapsulates the truism that all it takes is one stress junkie to make everyone else around miserable. Most offices are today home to one or more of these junkies. They are the ones always whizzing around in a fluster, racing from meeting to meeting while fielding email, texts and voice mail on multiple devices. They are on the go 24 x 7, talk generally in exclamation marks (“Get it done!”), are high on the dominance scale, and always seem about to come apart. And their hurrying, scurrying and worrying up the stress antennas in their environment, leaving everyone else emotionally exhausted. If they happen to be managers, and particularly in open-plan offices, others will also start hurrying and scurrying, just so they don’t appear to be slower-moving or lazy.
Research finds that, in close environments, the human brain “absorbs emotions, behavioural traits and facial expressions” from others in proximity to them with stunning rapidity. Another finding is that women are more susceptible to this “emotional contagion” as it’s been termed. The reason is that they are more sensitive and more in tune to other people’s feelings than their male counterparts.
Rushing blocks thoughtful communication, and instead sets off negative thinking and feelings among others. It also erodes civility. Instead of offering welcoming smiles and courtesy, we become the ones passing out dirty looks. On the flip side, there can be resentment: “Are you trying to show you’re more important than I am?”And, of course, your self-worth can take a knock: “May be my stuff isn’t as important as his.”
If you’re at the receiving end of second-hand stress, you could end up suffering from more than just a bent ear. Second-hand stress leads to primary stress symptoms like headaches, low energy, moodiness and depression.
Second-hand stress is a saboteur of marriages and families, too. If your spouse has been going through a rough patch at the office and coming home everyday harried and hassled, you may assume that he’s going to be stressed today, too, and your own stress hormones will react in anticipation. Then, just seeing his car enter the building complex can trigger your own stress response, even if he himself is no longer stressed.
This kind of “tension spillover”, as sociologists call it, may become a stress spiral in which everybody suffers more and more. If your husband, say, is on edge after a difficult day at work, he may blow up if your teenage daughter is late getting back home. The next day, he’s even more likely to overreact to minor problems on the job. Insidiously, a vicious circle can get started.
WHY IT HAPPENS
What makes us such human sponges, soaking up the emotional contagions around us as quickly as a cold? One mechanism that has been suggested involves a class of brain cells that have come to be called the “mirror neurons”. Why do we cringe when we see someone else get hurt? Because we mentally simulate the event as if it were happening to us, say researchers, and it is the mirror neurons that make this possible. Indeed, brain imaging studies in humans have shown that the pain we feel for others when they get hurt activates many of the same brain regions that are activated when we ourselves get hurt. This mirroring action is how we identify with others and show empathy, goes the hypothesis.
And it’s also the reason why we begin to act the way that others are acting under stress. Notice how you feel when someone around you is pacing, glancing about rapidly, toe-tapping impatiently, snapping or frowning. Note how long it takes for you to feel as anxious or impatient as they are and to physically mimic them -- frowning, snapping, slouching or toe-tapping. For many people, it doesn’t take long at all.
Everyone, just take a deep breath.
The mirroring action that is inherent in second-hand stress is part of what makes us human. That is why second-hand stress has also been called “the cost of caring”. The challenge in dealing with it lies in caring without carrying. Here are some suggestions that can help:
Take charge of your own emotions. The reason that second-hand stress can be worse than stress caused by your own problems (primary stress) is because you truly feel you don’t have any control over it. However, this is also precisely the key to coping with it: Let go of any notion of “controlling” the stress source. The perpetrator of the second-hand stress is beyond your control. Instead, focus on something you can control – your response to their stress.
This strategy enables you to put yourself in charge of your own emotions and reactions. For example, if your mother is stressing about what the weather will be like on your wedding day, you need to remember that you’re not in control of sun, rain, temperature or humidity. You can only control your own behaviour and your attitude about the weather that ensues.
Here are the kind of tangible steps you can take to avoid getting submerged in someone else’s stress:
» Do a quick once-over of your body language. Are you scrunching up your shoulders like your stressed-out colleague is doing? Are you screwing up your forehead with worry just like your spouse? If so, make a conscious choice to relax the muscles of your body and to take a deep breath or two. This in itself will let go of a good amount of the physical tension that you’re mimicking after the stressed person.
» Make another deliberate decision: you will not allow negative thoughts to feed your stress. Instead, think: “I will remain calm and breathe deeply. I will stay focused on the problem as solvable, not on the person as tension-causing.”
» If you feel the tension is beginning to grab you by the short hairs, take a walk -- literally. Leave the room for a while to compose yourself and keep a grip on your emotional control.
Be an atmosphere changer. Keeping your emotions under control does not mean you cannot help the person under stress. You can be compassionate and engaged even while distancing yourself from unhealthy stress.
Apart from listening to the other person as he unburdens himself, offer help in practical ways, such as:
If the person is worried that her project report won’t be satisfactory, offer to read through and critique it, check the statistics and the graph presentations.
If someone’s worrying about meeting a deadline, suggest spending time together to plan ways that he can prioritize tasks, work out daily sub-goals and stay on schedule to complete the job.
Don’t accept worrying as a reason for staying negative. And persuade the other person, too, that action is the antidote to fretting and feeling down.
The key word in your efforts should be “kindness”. Try not to react with irritation or aggression. Knowing that your own tetchy feelings derive from theirs, make a decision to treat them with kindness - and a few smiles. Smiles and laughter are as contagious as stress. It may work well enough to calm down the other person, but even if it doesn’t, staying positive will help you to distance yourself from their stress and therefore to also be kind to yourself!
Set appropriate boundaries. This is important. Ask if there is something you can do to help but be sure to set limits. You need to say to the stressed person something on these lines: “I want to be there for you, and I’m happy to be there for you. We can meet and talk things over twice a week, and we’ll see how you can take this forward. You’ll need to get beyond talking about it, to doing the things that will make a difference in the situation you’re up against.”
Another way to set limits is to make a list of your own priorities each day. When someone wants to throw their own fire alarm on you, focus on your list. If you can help, fine, but stay strong about the priorities you have already defined for yourself.
Setting boundaries is akin to creating an imaginary plexi-glass protector around you. You can view your colleague through the plexi-glass but his emotional maelstrom can’t attack (and attach to) you. You watch him with interest and empathy, but also with detachment, you don’t get drawn into the vortex.