If you’ve felt stress after being around a stressed-out person, then you may be a victim of secondhand stress. (Yes, there is such a thing.)

Scientists are studying how emotions tend to spread like a virus, and stress is no exception. Check out the results of recent research below.

Research by Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Clemens Kirschbaum from the Dresden University of Technology found that being exposed to someone in a stressful situation can trigger stress responses in your own body.

During the test, volunteers were required to complete difficult mathematical problems and interviews while performance was assessed by behavioral analysts. Only 5 percent of the subjects were able to maintain their calm. The rest experienced a significant increase in the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in their blood.

But that isn’t the interesting part.

The study also tracked the stress of observers. Of those observing the stressed-out subjects, 26% also showed a significant cortisol increase. The effect was stronger when the observer was in a couple relationships with the participant (40%). Interestingly, the study also found similar results when the observers watched the stressed-out individuals through a one-way mirror and on a video screen.

Children are even more vulnerable to secondhand stress

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, attached cardiovascular sensors to mothers and children. The mothers were then asked to give an impromptu speech while evaluators scowled critically. The sensors measured the mothers’ heart rate and other indicators for stress. When the moms were reunited with their children, who were playing in another room, all of the kids had an equally elevated heart rate, demonstrating that they had “caught” the symptoms of secondhand stress.

Protect yourself from secondhand stress

The solution to secondhand stress is a radical increase in self-awareness. There may be nothing to do about the initial stress due to an empathetic response. In fact, it might be dangerous to eradicate that empathy. The hope lies in becoming aware of what you are doing while you are doing it.

For example, when something triggers a stress response in you, can you identify the specific trigger? Amazingly, we are capable of operating on such a high level of autopilot that we often find ourselves completely stressed out and don’t even know how we got there. This is the problem. Not understanding what is happening within you leaves little hope for solutions.

Try this experiment

The next time you feel an increase in stress, slow yourself way down enough to acknowledge it. Ask yourself what, specifically, triggered the stress. When you identify the specific trigger, name it. Then, put it into a cause/effect sentence, such as:

  • I feel angry listening to my friend complain bitterly. Her anger is triggering anger in me.
  • I am stressed after watching my co-worker fail. Watching him stressing out caused secondhand stress.
  • I feel nervous watching this speaker talk nervously while making his presentation. This is secondhand stress.

Identifying a cause/effect association to what is happening within you gives you something clear to deal with. At that point, having clearly identified the source of your stress, you can employ whatever stress-reduction methods you know to calm yourself down.

Can’t do it?

If you are not able or willing to slow down and identify the stress trigger so you can calm yourself down, then you may have a strange psychological attachment to stress — which is very common.

This attachment results in self-sabotage.

When stress of one kind or another is familiar, we can end up unconsciously clinging to it. We favor the familiar over the foreign, because the familiar is safe. It’s what we know.

And it is a fact that, for many of us, inner peace and calm are foreign states. Oddly, we need to learn to tolerate peace and happiness and adapt to these states if peace and happiness have been an infrequent part of our lives.

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