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Imagine this: You hit the gym for a morning workout and stroll into the office on time, ready for the day. Then you catch a glimpse of your coworker, sighing loudly and shuffling through papers. A few minutes later, you start to feel anxious about your looming to-dos. What gives?
Turns out you can actually catch stress, just like you’d catch a cold, says Michelle Gielan, a happiness researcher and author of Broadcasting Happiness. Ever felt jumpy and unable to sleep after an intense episode of Scandal? Or walked down a noisy city street filled with honking cabs and felt your shoulders tense up? You can thank secondhand stress (a.k.a. empathetic stress) for those lovely effects as well.
The Spread of Stress
“Seeing someone else in a stressed state can impact our own hormonal and nervous system responses as if we were experiencing their stress firsthand,” explains Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., a fellow at the American Institute of Stress and author of Stressaholic. It’s one side effect of us being empathetic creatures, which is otherwise a good thing.
Seeing someone else in a stressed state can impact our own hormonal and nervous system responses as if we were experiencing their stress firsthand.
Stress is more likely to spread when you’ve got emotional ties to the anxious person-a romantic partner, friend, or colleague, Hanna says. Crossover of workplace aggression experiences in dual-earner couples. Haines VY, Marchand A, Harvey S. Journal of occupational health psychology, 2007, Mar.;11(4):1076-8998. But even if it’s a stranger, you’re not immune.
One study showed that when subjects watched a stressed-out person through a one-way mirror, cortisol levels-one of the hormones related to stress-rose in 26 percent of observers. And if someone’s an especially loud talker or hand gesturer, the more his or her stress is likely to spread: Research shows the more someone highly expressive a person is, the more contagious their emotions.
Gielan’s own research even found that people who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning were 27 percent more likely to report their day as “unhappy” six to eight hours later, compared to people who watched uplifting stories. Other studies have had similar results: Negative TV can translate to real-life negative emotions.
How It Affects Your Health
Whether you’re catching it from an anxious colleague, enraged cab driver, or even a character on CSI, secondhand stress can have very real consequences.
“The effects of secondhand stress are the same as chronic stress,” Hanna says. “Stress does not cause disease to happen, but it speeds up the development of anything that might be wrong in the body or brain.” Unmanaged chronic stress has been linked to all major diseases and disorders, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and dementia.
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And while you’ve known about secondhand smoke for years, research indicates that high stress levels have the same effect as smoking five cigarettes per day-upping your risk of heart disease by 27 percent.
Plus, it can lead to a general “blah” feeling. “When stress continues to be a problem, we feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and burnt out,” Hanna says. “Our brain chemistry is so depleted that the lens through which we see the world is literally dark and gloomy.”
But don’t be bummed! There are ways you can guard yourself-we’ve rounded up the best below.
Ways to Make Yourself Immune