You can probably guess from the name what second hand stress is. It’s when others around you are feeling stressed and then your stress levels start to go up. Maybe it’s just a feeling you can’t quite put your finger on, but underneath it’s still resulting in a biological stress response.
Why does this happen?
As humans we pick up on other people’s emotions. Mirror neurons are the cool neurons that help us to do this. Super useful for showing compassion to others, but if not kept in check, we can be so easily affected by the stress levels of others that it can be harmful to our physical and mental health, or at least decrease our productivity and psychological safety.
Have you ever worked with anyone whose moods impacted everyone else around them? Perhaps you felt like you were treading on eggshells to be around them? Perhaps you saw others feel like they were treading on eggshells when around them?
It’s not a great feeling and it leaves people spending more energy credits on being stressed, even though they don’t have anything to really stress about, instead of spending energy credits on getting the job done, or being truly present with others.
Second hand stress also spreads far and wide if left unchecked. So that’s a truck load of collective energy credits in any organisation which aren’t being put to good use.
So what to do? Well it’s a two-way street and everyone needs to take responsibility……
For the inflictors of second hand stress, it pays to be aware that this is a thing and perhaps ask around to see if this may be you. Sometimes the inflictors aren’t always aware and awareness is the first step. If that is you, (and don’t worry – you are definitely not alone) the next question is whether that’s the way you want to be perceived by others? And is this the impact you want to have on others?
If not, here are a few handy tips:
- When you feel yourself getting stressed, take 60-90 seconds to do some deep diaphragmatic breathing to get you out of flight/fight/freeze mode and back into solution mode.
- Venting helps – find a trusted person and get behind closed doors to have a good vent. Neuroscience tells us if we don’t vent, suppression of emotions takes a lot of cognitive energy so vent away (just try to avoid the collateral damage of others).
- Get constructive – hash out a plan, ask for help, and take responsibility to changing your reaction to the stressor.
For the recipients of second hand stress:
- Rather than take the stress levels of others personally, or allowing yourself to be influenced by their stress levels, perhaps suggest that their stress is noticeable (they might not know and be grateful for the feedback) and ask if there is anything you can do to support them. You may just diffuse their stress with an offer of support.
- If they don’t respond (yes, some people just like being stressed), unfortunately we can’t always change others but we can change our reaction or interaction with others. I once worked with someone really negative and nothing I could do or say was ever going to help the situation, but I could reduce my interactions with her and that definitely helped.
- Understand that the negative behaviour by others is driven by what’s going on for them and generally has very little to do with you. This helped me to think in a more compassionate way which didn’t help her, but it certainly helped my mental health.
If everyone takes responsibility to understand the neuroscience of stress and the impact it can have on the psychological safety and productivity of themselves and others, the workplace can be far more delightful.
Remember that emotional regulation is a super power!
If you would like to know more about the neuroscience of stress and directing it for good, rather than for evil, why not come along to our next open workshop series.