Nobody likes having to deal with stress. The situation is even worse when you can’t avoid contact with those around you who are adding to your stress level. Like a cold, stress can be contagious. What can you do? Must you accept this is something you cannot change? In short, no. These are a few of many proactive ways to cope with contagious stress.
First, though, the concept of contagious stress isn’t some novel disease du jour. Instead, contagious stress is a very real phenomenon. For example, how is it that partners/spouses and family members of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) displayed symptoms of PTSD even though they’d never been in the military themselves?
Research from scientists at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute helps shed light on how contagious stress occurs. By studying how stress affects pairs of mice, then removing one mouse from the pair and exposing it to mild stress before returning it to the other mouse, they found that the stressed mouse transmitted stress to its partner. The evidence? Scientists examined the brains of both mice, looking specifically at CRH neurons (responsible for controlling how the brain responds to stress). What they found was that changes (due to stress) were identical in both mice, the originally stressed one and the one not initially directly exposed to stress. Interestingly, in female mice only, the residual effects of stress effects are cut in half following a social interaction after time spent with the unstressed mouse. This finding may have implications for development of personalized treatment strategies for stress.
Another study from the University of British Columbia found a connection between teacher burnout and elevated cortisol (a biological indicator of stress) levels in their students. This occurred in classrooms where teachers experienced greater emotional exhaustion and burnout. Study researchers said that a stressful classroom climate is a cyclical problem. And, in children, stress has also been linked to learning problems and mental health issues.
PROACTIVE WAYS TO COPE WITH CONTAGIOUS STRESS
Getting back to what you can do to combat the effects of contagious stress, try a few of the following suggestions:
1. Build resilience.
When you’re more resilient, you’re better able to weather the effects of contagious stress. How you build resilience is a personal approach that you refine over time. Effective resilience builders include connecting with others, learning how to reframe negative experiences, practicing optimism, connecting with loved ones and friends, maximizing your strengths to achieve desired goals, setting a work-life balance, and implementing a healthy daily routine that includes nutritious diet and physical activities.
2. Step back from the situation.
You might be too close to the stressed individual to be able to successfully cope. In this case, physically create some distance between you so that you are not directly exposed any longer than necessary to the stressful situation and person. By so doing, you allow yourself time and space to gain perspective on the matter and not get caught up in the chaos and turmoil.
3. Go holistic.
Consider using essential oils such as chamomile, bergamot and lavender oils for busting stress created by a stressed-out partner. These essential oils stimulate the body’s own feel-good hormones, help with depression and promote better sleep – each of which can offset your levels of stress.
4. Avoid taking on others’ problems.
It’s important to recognize that the problems of your stressed-out partner, family member, friend or co-worker are not your problems. As such, avoid the tendency to take on what’s bothering him or her and making it better by tackling the problem yourself. You can, however, contribute to their efforts to solve their difficulties by making appropriate suggestions. Just make sure that they do the work to get past the problems, not you.
Even a half hour daily is a terrific and easy-to-do act that naturally boost mood. What a wonderful way to cope with contagious stress. There are many options to choose from, including a simple, brisk walk outside, aerobic exercises, running, working with weights, spinning, using a treadmill or exercise bike, taking a dance class, doing yoga, even gardening.
6. Use music to block the stress.
A convenient distraction from partner-induced stress is music. You can use headphones to literally block the stress and restore a sense of calm and well-being. This is especially true of slow classical music, which can slow heartrate and pulse, lower blood pressure, and decrease levels of stress hormones in the body. Not a bad way to add to a higher quality of life.
7. Put a little gratitude in your attitude.
Another highly-recommended coping method for transmitted stress is to practice gratitude. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences found that participants subjected to a social stressor after training in mindfulness meditation coupled with an exercise focused on socio-affective competencies (including gratitude, compassion, dealing with difficult emotions) showed significantly reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. How to apply this in your life? Think of all the good things in your life for which you are thankful. This helps change your perspective from one that is decidedly negative to a positive and life-affirming outlook. While the stress may still be there afterward, you’ll be better able to navigate through this turbulent time.
8. Lighten your load.
You’ve likely taken on too many projects, said yes to more than you can reasonably handle if you’re caught up in a situation where you are in constant contact with another stressed individual. No wonder you absorb the effects of his or her stress and notice the physical and emotional consequences. A helpful way to get past over-commitment and overwork is to lighten your load. Reduce what you target as must-do items and simplify your life considerably. Practice streamlining your daily task list so that you have more time to do what you most enjoy, whatever that activity is.
If you think you’re handling everything just fine, you might be surprised. How stressed are you? Take this simple stress test to find out. Then, maybe apply some of these strategies to minimize the effects of contagious stress.