Studies show that worry and anxiety can be contagious — especially for women! But experts say it’s possible to protect yourself from secondhand stress, and spread joy along the way. Here’s how to keep yourself from absorbing other people’s moods, and create stronger bonds at the same time.
After a grueling week, you’re excited to meet your best friend for dinner. But when you see her, she blurts out, “I just need to vent about work!” Because you’re so empathetic, her stress instantly drains you. Suddenly, your stomach does a somersault and your shoulders feel tight. You were looking forward to catching up with your pal all week, so why do you suddenly feel so anxious?
Blame emotional contagion, which is our natural tendency to “catch” and mimic the feelings of those around us. When we observe another person’s body language and facial expressions, our brain picks up signals that activate “mirror neurons,” the engines behind empathy, explains psychologist Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D. As a result, we begin to experience what the other person is feeling. For instance, it’s those mirror neurons at work when you see someone yawn and it makes you feel sleepy and yawn too. In a very similar fashion, you can actually “catch” anxiety, anger and/or sadness.
Making someone else’s emotions your own isn’t always bad — tuning into a loved one’s distress, after all, can help foster intimacy. The trouble comes when it goes too far, when you’re just picking up too much from others. Thankfully, it’s easier than you think to transform emotional contagion into resilience and bliss. Read on to discover how to stop someone else’s stress from affecting your mood so you can forge deeper connections and feel more joy.
Anxious? Create a ‘power lead.’
You and your co-worker are prepping for a big presentation, when she says fearfully, “This is a disaster!” “In these situations, it’s easy to confuse someone else’s anxiety with your own,” says life coach Jillian Richardson, author of Un-Lonely Planet (Buy from Amazon, $16). But even if secondhand stress begins to spread, you can still take charge of your feelings.
Instead of mimicking her tension, respond with a kind word like, “I’m sorry you’re overwhelmed.” Compassionate remarks instantly convey support, tamping down fear levels, says Richardson. Also smart: Create what happiness researcher Shawn Achor, Ph.D., author of The Happiness Advantage (Buy from Amazon, $12), calls a “power lead.” He explains that the first words in a conversation often predict the outcome, because priming the situation with positivity decreases anxiety. If your colleague dreads a meeting, start with, “I’m grateful to collaborate, and we’ll get through this together.” When you express positivity, your body produces the bonding hormone oxytocin, making you both happier.
Overwhelmed? Befriend your feelings.
As soon as you gaze at your phone, you’re bombarded with doom-filled headlines. Suddenly, the weight of a stress-filled world feels like it has landed on your shoulders and it’s impossible to think of anything else. When it seems like life is out of control, it’s easy to feel powerless, notes Whitbourne.
Just noticing your unpleasant emotions can keep them from taking over. Start by exercising a little self-compassion by asking yourself, What do I need to comfort myself in this moment? Acknowledging distress causes your brain to release dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, which decreases pain and stress. Once your tension dials down, pinpoint something positive you can do for yourself. For instance, you might listen to your favorite song or read a joy-filled story. Says Whitbourne, “Or simply telling a sympathetic friend that you’re struggling can also leave you feeling supported.”
Feeling guilty? Set a loving boundary.
At a family get-together, your mom and sister start bickering about politics. You try to stay neutral, but your sister turns to you and says, “Tell Mom why you think I’m right!” Caught in the crossfire, you feel your resentment spike. Soon, you’re riddled with guilt that family time for you feels more like a dreaded trip to the dentist.
If guilt or tension is getting the best of you, consider drawing a line in the sand. “Boundaries prevent secondhand resentment from creeping into your relationships,” reveals Richardson. But too often, guilt can stop us from speaking up. Instead of seeing boundaries as push-back, look at the upside. “Ultimately, they’re meant to maintain connections, not create more distance,” she says. To diffuse the conflict easily, you might say, “I’d like to change the topic,” then follow up with a funny question like, “If you were a comedian, who would you be?” Studies show sprinkling a bit of humor into a conversation changes the emotional weather instantly, unleashing joy for everyone.
Angry or irritated? Let curiosity be your superpower.
You’re waiting in line to order a latte when a stranger cuts in front of you. You tell her you were there first, but instead of apologizing, she snaps back, “What do I care?” Suddenly, her rude tone feels like bad energy that threatens to ruin your entire day.
Rather than mirror the grumpster’s behavior with a sharp retort, let curiosity be your guide. Simply ask yourself, I wonder what’s going on with her? advises Whitbourne. Psychologists call this “cognitive empathy,” and it’s a great way to ignite wonder and douse stress. We can never know the real story about a stranger’s life; they may be depressed or going through a tough time, Whitbourne explains. Cognitive empathy, however, can help you depersonalize their behavior, which isn’t the same as making excuses for them. Instead of seeing them as insensitive, you may tell yourself that they’re lonely or having a bad day. Says Richardson, “Just remember that you always have it within you to flip the script and stay positive, stop- ping someone else’s frustration from ruining your day, and thereby turning secondhand stress into secondhand joy.”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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