Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Second Hand Stress

Most of us know about second hand smoking, which refers to breathing in the smoke exhaled by those around us who smoke, or the smoke coming from their cigarettes, but did you know about second hand stress? Those symptoms you’re feeling may not be yours at all, you might be the victim of a kind of emotional 'pass the parcel' where the stress of those around you is the cause of the problem.

Evidence for second hand stress

Tania Singer (Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences) and Clemens Kirschbaum (Dresden University of Technology) asked volunteers to complete difficult interviews and maths problems and found that in 95% of people, there was an increase in a stress hormone called cortisol.

What’s really interesting is that they also tested the stress levels of the observers (who were making sure the study went as planned) and found that 26% of them had increased cortisol levels as well. Just watching people get stressed was all it took. And if the observer knew and had a relationship with the person taking the test the figure shot up to 40%.

Researchers at the University of California found that children were particularly susceptible to second hand stress. They asked Mums to give a speech to a group of researchers, with no warning or preparation time: most found this very stressful. The children were left to play in another room, where they were fine, but on being reunited with their mums, the children also began to show symptoms of stress such as elevated heart rates.

Second hand stress can be a big problem at work. Robert S. Rubin, an associate professor of management (DePaul University) says that those who are 'frenzied and frantic' or who jump quickly from one task to another can lead to the whole work team being less productive and more stressed.

How do we experience second hand stress?

It's probably a by-product of our ability to empathise with others, which happens when we understand how they are feeling. It can be useful - if someone else in our environment feels threatened, we should probably look out for danger as well. But in the wrong place it can be just as harmful as stress from our own lives.

Neuro-imaging studies show that when we see other people get hurt and empathise with them, brain activity is triggered in many of the same regions that are activated when we get hurt ourselves.

It may also be that some pheromones (body chemicals which trigger a social response in other people) which are in our sweat when we are stressed play a part. A study in 2009 showed that inhaling the stress-induced sweat from another person causes a stress response in our brains, whereas inhaling the exercised-induced sweat does not.

What can we do to reduce second hand stress?

  • We can recognise when others are triggering our stress and take steps to calm ourselves such as deep breathing or focussing our thoughts on something more positive
  • When groups of people are together, they tend to 'mirror' one another without being aware of it. (Try this out - next time you are in a group make a postural change such as crossing your ankles or putting your hands in your pockets, and notice how within a few minutes others in the group are doing the same.)We can make sure we are not mirroring a stressed person's breathing, posture, facial expression or behaviour
  • We can take a break or go for a walk to allow the situation to diffuse, and suggest the stressed person does the same
  • If someone you know or work with always seems to carry an aura of stress to pass onto others, a tactful approach to help them reduce their stress or deal with it better can improve life for everyone
  • Remember the safety talks in planes when you go on holiday? They tell parents to always put on their own oxygen masks before seeing to their kids in an emergency because you help them more effectively by looking after yourself. Second hand stress is similar, you'll be less susceptible to picking it up (or passing it on to others) if your own stress levels are as low as possible.
Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.Debbie is has also written about helping people with IBS in the Hypnotherapy Handbook which is available from Amazon.co.uk.
Find out more about Debbie's services on www.yorkshirestressmanagement.com  or phone 01977 678593

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