Is Stress Contagious? Building a Resistance to Empathic Stress

empathic stress

I’ve been hearing that the flu has reared its head this season- mostly down south so far, but its headed our way. We all know that the flu is contagious, but did you know that stress is contagious?

According to a 2014 German study, in a series of experiments most participants who simply observed others completing a stressful task experienced an increase themselves in production of the stress hormone cortisola phenomenon known as empathic stress. You can also experience stress when someone you know is affected by a traumatic event, like a car crash or a devastating illness. We tend not to worry about these things until they hit close to home, but then we feel that empathic stress, and our bodies treat that stress as if it were our own. So what do we do about it? Empathy is generally a good thing, right?

Another online article from Harvard Business Review uses phrases like “build a natural immunity” and “inoculate yourself” when describing how to avoid this type of empathy. In regard to building an immunity against others trials and tribulations their article states:

“One of the greatest buffers against picking up others’ stress is stable and strong self-esteem. The higher your self-esteem, the more likely you will feel that you can deal with whatever situation you face. If you are finding yourself being impacted by others’ moods, stop and remind yourself how things are going well and that you can handle anything that comes your way.”

And in regard to inoculating yourself:

Inoculate yourself before going into work or stressful environments. For example, before we start our morning, the very first thing we do is think of three things we are grateful for that day. There are five positive psychology habits that help inoculate our brains against the negative mindsets of others: 1) writing a 2-minute email praising someone you know; 2) writing down three things for which you’re grateful; 3) journaling about a positive experience for two minutes; 4) doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes; or 5) meditating for just two minutes.”

Also, spend more time with people who are truly positive and joyful. Not that everything and everyone has to be (rah rah) “everything is awesome!” all the time, but being around uplifting people will recharge your negativity-fighting batteries. When I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day—usually exacerbated by dealing with people—listening to my husband laughing at a stupid tv show always picks me up, or then there’s always the cat videos on youtube.

Finally, work on transforming your empathy into compassion. They might seem like the same things, but there are important differences. Neuroscientist Dr. Tania Singer and her colleagues found that different parts of the brain are triggered when we share someone’s pain (empathy) or when we want to respond warmly towards their suffering (compassion):

“It is crucial to distinguish between empathy, which is in itself not necessarily a good thing, and compassion. When I empathize went the suffering of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suffering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic stress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering we do not necessarily feel with their pain but we feel concern- a feeling of love and warmth- and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.”

Don’t forget that the number one way to deal with stress, either secondhand or otherwise, is to take care of yourself first! Contact me if you want to try a massage to relieve stress, or give some of my other quick tips to reduce stress a try.

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