Stress is an emotion we are all familiar with. There are many situations that cause us stress, an emotion that we generally experience because of something that directly affects us.
However, it also happens that we can be stressed simply because a person around us is. Just like yawning or laughing, stress is contagious and it can happen that even the calmest person in the world ends up getting stressed because a friend of theirs is overwhelmed.
This acquired emotion has been called second-hand stress., just like the smoke we breathe when we have a smoker nearby. Let’s look a little deeper why we become infected with this emotion.
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What is secondhand stress?
We have all heard that, even if we are not the ones who smoke, receiving secondhand tobacco smoke is almost as harmful as smoking. Well, there are those who say that this same rule applies to stress, even if we are not the ones who experience it firsthand.
This type of emotion is known as secondhand stress, and has been defined as the vulnerability of acquiring the stressful state of others, infecting their nervousness and emotional discomfort..
It is not something uncommon. Everyone has experienced it at some point because, whether we like it or not, it is inevitable to be affected by the mood of others. It is enough to spend a few hours with that co-worker who gets overwhelmed as soon as he has a delivery, that friend who always seems to be pushed to the limit, or that sister who perceives everything as a constant threat.
Other people’s negative emotions can upset us, something that shows our human and empathetic nature but is also very annoying.
It appears that experiencing second-hand stress makes some biological sense.. From a neurological and phylogenetic perspective, catching other people’s stress is actually an adaptive mechanism that allows us to sense danger. When we see that someone is upset, we deduce that he is upset because there is a threat, which can also harm us and therefore should be avoided. Therefore, we empathize with that person, experiencing the same emotion as them to act accordingly.
The problem is that, although this mechanism must have been very useful in the past, today it seems to have become a handicap, something that, more than a protection mechanism, is a danger to our mental health. Second hand stress, In many cases, it is unnecessary suffering arising from mismanagement of another person’s negative emotions.. Living with someone who does not properly manage stress can end up affecting us and hurt us.
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It is inevitable to talk about mirror neurons and empathy when addressing why second-hand stress occurs. Empathy is responsible for us being in tune with the emotions of others, and it is even what makes us yawn when we see (or even hear) someone yawn or laugh. Empathy is the mechanism that makes us sensitive to other people’s emotions, both the good ones and those that involve suffering, such as stress.
Non-verbal communication also generates emotional contagions, since as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and this also carries over into the realm of emotions. Sometimes we just need to pass by a room where people look exhausted, angry or stressed (for example, a subway car, a funeral home…) for us to end up catching those emotions, without them ever telling us what. It is what has made them feel this way or not even tell us that they feel this way.
Understanding this, we can see that Secondhand stress is the effect that being around someone who is emotionally tense has on our nervous system.. And we say that it has an effect on the nervous system because, in fact, being around nervous people causes our body to produce more cortisol, the famous stress hormone.
How does this psychological phenomenon appear?
As strange as it may sound, sometimes we behave in such an automatic way that we don’t even realize our emotions. It usually happens that, after doing things for a while out of pure inertia, we stop for a moment and realize that we are not feeling well emotionally. But at the moment we become aware of our emotions, it is downright difficult for us to identify what causes them.
That’s why second-hand stress affects us without us realizing it, but it doesn’t make it drain us of energy any less. This discomfort is especially intense after having spent time with one of the sources of stress.such as a boss, a colleague, a family member, a partner… Our energy fades and negative emotions take control.
The partner is especially relevant, because if she suffers from high anxiety, it is very difficult for us not to feel affected by her emotions, especially considering that she is a person we care a lot about.
But in these times it also happens that people we don’t know influence us emotionally. In a hyperconnected world, it is almost inevitable not to catch the stress of individuals who, even if they are on the other side of the world, change our mood by sharing their traumatic stories, the experience of a situation of discrimination or social criticism. It is difficult to maintain a positive mood if we see that there are many misfortunes in the world and, even if we are not victims of them, it is inevitable to feel discomfort for these people..
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How to handle stress secondhand
When stress is not managed properly, it ends up taking a physical and psychological toll on us. For this reason, in the same way that we protect ourselves from a smoker’s tobacco smoke, we must also protect ourselves from the stress of other people. To be honest, it is somewhat complicated, but It is an exercise of utmost necessity to be able to enjoy better mental health..
1. Flexible mind in the face of stress
Stress is not always pathological, in fact, it is a normal response of our brain to events that surpass us and that we need to get moving to overcome. It is inevitable to experience it from time to time, but it is not healthy for it to become part of our daily lives.
To protect us from him, It is necessary to develop a flexible mind in the face of environments loaded with stress and other negative emotions..
We must make a conscious effort to avoid becoming impregnated with the frustration and discomfort of others. It is okay to feel compassion for others, but we cannot make their emotional suffering become an inseparable part of our lives. We already have our own problems, what good is it to add new ones that have little to do with us?
We can encourage that person to learn to manage their stress better or help them get rid of the source of discomfort, but we cannot allow something that affects another person and that we cannot solve to end up affecting us.
Let’s limit ourselves to feeling compassion for those who are going through a bad patch, establishing a barrier of emotional containment between them and us. Feeling sorry for these people is an act of empathy, an act of humanity, but it will prevent their problems from harming us..
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2. Protect yourself from other people’s stress to help better
If our friend, partner, co-worker, brother or any other person important to us suffers a lot of stress, it will not help us if we suffer with them. As we said, your thing is to feel compassion, but not let yourself fall into his pit of discomfort. If we want to help that person we love, it is necessary that, instead of allowing their stress to affect us, we must be strong and avoid making their discomfort our own.
What we must do is reverse the direction of the influence, that is, that we are the ones who influence that person and motivate them to find a solution and learn to manage their emotions. Those who suffer need support and a little push to solve their life, not for others to fall into the same loop of negativity.
3. Apply ecpathy
This is where we introduce a peculiar word: ecpathy. This is not the opposite idea of empathy, but rather a complement. It is the correct management of the emotions that infect us, the voluntary process of exclusion of feelings, attitudes, thoughts and motivations induced by others.
Ecpathy allows us to apply adequate mental containment from which to connect with others but without falling into their web of negativity.. It serves as a psychological scale to protect us from unwelcome emotions of others without preventing us from connecting with the emotional state of the people we care about.
4. Create positive antibodies
A good way to prevent other people’s emotions from ruining our day is by finding actions that neutralize the negative effects of the stressed person.. For example, instead of responding to their stress with something similar, we can offer a smile, a sympathetic gesture, or try to talk something positive about their appearance or what they have done.
It is advisable avoid starting negative conversations, such as “I’m desperate with so much work” or “I’m very overwhelmed”, replacing them with more positive statements such as “I like talking to you” or “how good the coffee is today!” and other things like that. The best way to counter negativity is with positivity.