Even without the pandemic creating challenging stress levels, as caring individuals, we often want to empathise and support those who are stressed. However, the back story is that we end up absorbing their anxieties.
When listening, empathising and supporting others we do this for the very best of intentions. We all need a support system and acts of kindness when we feel emotionally fragile or particularly vulnerable. What also happens is we take on the worries and concerns of others – a kind of emotional osmosis. Often we have no idea this is the psychological impact it is having on us as we are naturally more focused on helping the person who is sharing their troubles.
Is there a way to balance the support we want to share with the recognition of how it is impacting our own mental health? We all find caring for others hugely rewarding and clearly we want to continue supporting each other. We also need to understand how our own health is affected by absorbing others distress.
Dr Alka Patel is a lifestyle medical physician, GP, Coach, Speaker and Podcaster. Dr Patel explains what second hand stress is, how to recognise it and tips on the best ways to deal with it:
What exactly is second-hand stress?
Second-hand stress is a neurological phenomenon observed as the spread of emotions. Stress is contagious and can be caught. We communicate our emotions through our body in our facial expressions, movements, posture, energies and even our smell. We interact with each other through our mirror neurones and mimic the expressions of others This mimicry is an important way for us to build our emotional intelligence and emotional empathy and helps us engage with each other better emotionally. Our expressions and movements in turn tell our brain how we are feeling. If the corners of your mouth lift into a smile, your brain interprets this as happiness. If your brow muscles deepen into a frown, your brain interprets this as stress. This is how we absorb the emotions of others as our own and why we feel stressed in the company of others who are stressed, feel tired if others are tired yawn, when someone else yawns – it’s mirror neurones at work. We’re hard wired to respond to threats as part of our survival mechanism through our sympathetic nervous system– remember S for sympathetic, S for survival, S for stress. Which is why it’s easier to absorb negative emotions from others more easily than positive emotions. If others are stressed, we perceive a signal that we should be stressed too.
Typical scenarios of when a person might experience it- examples of situations?
My daughter’s currently going through GCSE’s and the stress levels in the classroom are at an all time high. She’s generally a very calm person but has noticed her own stress levels rising when others are talking about how worried they are. Second-hand stress is common in exam situations.
It’s also very noticeable in working environments – a stressed boss, colleagues on edge with the pressure of deadlines – this is transmissible and creates a stressed working culture
In my lifestyle medicine practice I see second-hand stress spread through families – depressed, tired mums present with children who also display low mood and fatigue. Most worrying, an 8 year old little boy who said he was stressed. If children as young as 8 are using the word stressed, something in that child’s environment needs to change.
It’s also interesting to note that second-hand stress can also be transmitted through screens. My husband has recently been enjoying watching the seat-gripping Line of Duty before going to bed….followed by extremely restless nights. We can catch stress even through screens This was shown in a study in which a group participants took a stress test involving mathematics and interviews. 95% showed an increase in cortisol levels – our primary stress hormones. A group of observers watched the participants take the stress tests.26% of the observing group also showed an increase in cortisol levels A group was also asked to watch videos of participants completing the stress test, 24% showed an increase ins tress levels – witnessing anyone experiencing stress in person or through a screen causes a response, Stress presents an evolutionary advantage to survival and response to dancer, but continued, chronic stress can affect long term health and risks of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Tell tale signs – what to recognise
If you’re feeling stressed but can’t put your finger on why, the source of stress could be someone else. Secondary stress can feel exhausting, so look out for feeling more tired than normal, feeling forgetful or unable to concentrate.
Second hand stress busting strategies – helpful tips
In the face of second-hand stress, focusing on your positive attributes can help.
PAUSE and don’t ignore those feelings and signs of stress – feeling on edge, sweaty palms, racing mind
OVERCOME stress through mindfulness and attention training – shift your attention to the present moment, using your 5 senses to fully experience the moment that is now; notice 5 things you see, 4 things you touch, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste; practice this through the day just for a few minutes
SPREAD positive emotions instead of stress – smiling, laughter, kindness, patience, compassion- be a positive influence on others instead of letting their negativity affect you
INFORM the primary source of stress of the impact they are having on you and offer a listening ear
TAKE a breath – the power of breathwork is incredible; reducing your breath rate down to 6 or less breaths a minute switches off your stress response and switches on your relaxation response – gives you calm in the moment and long term protection from the health effects of chronic second-hand stress
INTERACT with inspiring people regularly – maintain social connection with people who provide uplift
VISUALISE positive, images, thoughts and situations – make this a daily habit.
EXPRESS gratitude daily – write a journal every evening with 5 things you are thankful for.