Can you catch stress?

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Just as colds, flu and other bugs are readily passed on from person to person, everyday stress can spread, too. 

Thanks to friends, family, colleagues and even strangers, second-hand stress, a relatively new phenomenon, is on the rise. ‘Second-hand stress is the stress we experience from being around other people who are stressed. Seeing others in distress triggers our body’s own stress response,’ says clinical NLP practitioner and life coach Lisa Bardell (lisabardellcoaching.co.uk). We’re built to empathise with others and mimic behaviour, and our brain cells are hardwired to imitate actions or emotions. ‘The amygdala in the brain sends signals to the body, and we produce stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This second-hand stress becomes a physiological state through our system at a cellular level,’ adds Lisa. 

In recent years, second-hand stress has become a worrying epidemic. ‘People do not have effective management strategies, and the neurology of stress – literally the neural pathways in the brain and body that put us into stress – becomes so well used that it becomes etched like a neurological groove,’ says Lisa. According to a recent study by Germany’s Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, seeing someone in a difficult situation is enough to bring us to meltdown, sparking anxiety reactions in our own bodies – even if we’re not experiencing it directly. ‘We are creating stress with our thoughts. Until we learn new strategies en masse, we will all continue to feel frazzled and will “catch” the stress of others,’ continues Lisa. While suffering short bursts of anxiety won’t have a huge impact on health, chronic exposure to second-hand stress can trigger high levels of cortisol. In high doses, cortisol can lead to sleep problems, weight gain and hormone imbalance. 

Read the stress signals

Another recent study by Saint Louis University in the US found that stress can be passed on by our facial expressions, our voice pitch, touch and even by specific smells. On the downside, being exposed to chronic stress can raise the risk of heart attack, stroke and even depression. ‘Stress is stress; it is a physiological state in our brains and bodies. No matter how you arrived at this state it will feel the same,’ says Lisa. Common everyday symptoms include palpitations, a tightening in the chest, a churning stomach, insomnia, fatigue and loss of appetite. But there are plenty of ways to tackle stress head on– check out our expert tips.

Release the pressure with these top tips

1. Choose your friends wisely

Ditch your ‘glass is always empty’ friend and hang around with happy people. Just as stress is contagious, so is laughter, meaning friends with positive vibes will naturally rub off on you. ‘Simply decide who makes you feel good, supports you and allows you to feel you can express yourself authentically.Spend more time with these people,’ says Lisa.

2. Enjoy some TLC

Whether it’s a long soak in the tub or a massage that floats your boat, taking time out for yourself will help to relieve the physical and psychological effects of stress brought on by others. 

3. Regain your focus

Getting in touch with your zen will relieve built-up tension. ‘We wear stress and being busy like a badge of honour; it has become a benchmark of success. It is not!’ says Lisa. Focus on your breathing, taking time to inhale and exhale when you feel stress start to spark up. 

4. Take a load off your plate

Go old-school and keep a daily journal, jotting down your feelings every time you feel your anxiety levels rise as a result of someone else. ‘This is an important step, as by nurturing ourselves we can bring the best of ourselves to our lives, jobs and our relationships,’ says Lisa. 

5. Eat yourself stress-free

A balanced diet can play a vital role in managing stress. Cortisol naturally makes us crave high-sugar, fatty foods, which when eaten in excess are stored as visceral fat, or fat around the middle. It’s this type of fat that has been linked to diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Load your plate with calming foods like oats, berries, nuts and seeds.

6. Focus on yourself

Stop putting others first. ‘Often this is linked to low self-esteem, not feeling we deserve to put ourselves at the top of the list. Give yourself time to rest, to exercise, to eat healthily and take time off – we are investing in ourselves, our health and our ability to be emotionally resilient,’ says Lisa.

7. Get a move on

There’s tons of proof that exercise helps to keep you stress-free. Take advantage of the warm weather and hit the park pavements or jump on your bike to get the endorphins flowing. 

8. Create some distance

We all need boundaries – both physical and emotional. ‘Teaching people to expect less of you also works well. Remember: you teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce. Think about how you can handle certain people differently,’ says Lisa. 

9. Turn on the tunes

Next time you feel the pressure, crank up some uplifting tunes on your iPod. Music has a massive impact on our emotions, and studies show playing music can help to relieve psychological stress. 

10. Take less on 

Strike a balance between nurturing yourself and looking after others. ‘Ask yourself this: “Is this working for me?”, “What am I getting out of this that is positive?” and “How is this supporting what is important to me?”,’ says Lisa. This will help you figure out what you’re doing out of obligation and what you’re doing because you want to. 

4 ways to stop a stress attack before it strikes

Next time you find yourself stuck in a stressful situation as a result of someone else, follow Lisa’s top tips to break free.

1. Redirect stress

Acknowledge and listen, without ‘going into the pit’ with your friend or colleague. When we are stressed, we want to be heard, so try to be present, listen and show that you’re listening without stepping in with your own opinion or taking sides. 

2. Don’t get too involved

Don’t gossip, try not to get drawn in and don’t start asking questions about the details, or who did what – even if it is really interesting! Ultimately you will be setting yourself up to be involved in the continuing saga. 

3. Stop impulsiveness 

With close friends don’t be tempted to make strong statements about other parties, especially partners or family members. Once the situation is resolved, you may live to regret these comments and they will cause you stress.

4. Detach yourself

If you can, try to remove yourself from the conversation politely and supportively. If it’s at all possible try to remove yourself from the setting of the conversation completely, and even the whole situation for a little while. It’ll be better for your stress levels.