Second-Hand Stress Can Be Toxic — Here's How To Stop It From Affecting You
If you're stressed, you stress out those around you. That's a well-known social fact that anybody who's ever had a friend going through a house move or handing in a PhD will know. A recent study revealed that mice experience stress as a kind of "contagion" — and that both stressed mice and their mouse friends show the exact same shifts in their brain chemistry. This doesn't mean that stress is like the flu or a cold; it doesn't pass from one person to another via a sneeze or germs. But, like viruses, it shows up in identical ways in those who "catch" it. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that second-hand stress can be super toxic — but luckily, there are certain easy ways to avoid 'catching' stress from your coworker, or partner, or sibling, or anyone else you spend a lot of time around.
The scientists behind the study believe it's possible to replicate the results in humans, saying in a press release, "We readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it. There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD." But there need to be more tests on the neurons of stressed-out individuals and their partners, friends and families before we can make any conclusions. That being said, it's definitely possible to feel the stress of the stressed out people around you, without their having to say anything at all.
Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, writing for Inc, says that the people who are most likely to experience second-hand stress are those who can't set boundaries. So, try to make sure your (healthy) boundaries are strong going into a situation where second-hand stress seems imminent. Nancy Levin, writing for MindBodyGreen, recommends looking at the areas in your life where you need boundaries the most, and starting there. "Make sure to include work life, home life, relationships, health, finances, spiritual path, and any other areas that are important to you," she wrote. From there, you can identify the behaviors you can no longer accept, such as a coworker constantly venting to you about your shared boss, or your partner dropping the ball with household chores because they're dealing with family drama. Then, of course, stick to these boundaries — gently but firmly let the people in your life know that you need to take a break from helping to manage their stress, and shift the topic to something that won't stress *either* of you out.
If maintaining these boundaries is difficult, you can manage the stress the same way you would manage it first-hand. One important tip to keep in mind, whether you're managing your own stress or stress you're experiencing second-hand, is to keep an objective eye on your emotions. An easy way to do this is to practice mindfulness — intentionally observing the sensations that are occurring in your mind and body. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, as well as help you deal with stressful situations in the moment. Ask yourself what you're feeling — what sights, sounds, emotions, sensations, etc. — and allow yourself to recognize them without judgment. Then, allow yourself to let those emotions or sensations pass.
You can use any of your self-care strategies to help you cope with second-hand stress just as you would with first-hand stress — remove yourself from the situation, and take a walk, craft, exercise, or anything else that makes you feel a bit better. For the meantime, this study shows that you can feel justified in keeping a distance from your stressed-out friend who's taking final exams. Send a care package, express sympathy, but be aware that it could be having a very real toll on your own brain — and take steps to mitigate it.