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Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress



​Over the past decade, we have learned how our brains are hardwired for emotional contagion. Emotions spread via a wireless network of mirror neurons, which are tiny parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others and understand what they're feeling. When you see someone yawn, mirror neurons can activate, making you yawn, in turn. Your brain picks up the fatigue response of someone sitting on the other side of the room. But it's not just smiles and yawns that spread. We can pick up negativity, stress, and uncertainty like secondhand smoke. Researchers Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio that if someone in your visual field is anxious and highly expressive — either verbally or non-verbally — there's a high likelihood you'll experience those emotions as well, negatively impacting your brain's performance.​

Observing someone who is stressed — especially a coworker or family member — can have an immediate effect upon our own nervous systems. A separate group of researchers found that 26% of people showed elevated levels of cortisol just by observing someone who was stressed. Secondhand stress is much more contagious from a romantic partner (40%) than a stranger, but when observers watched a stressful event on video with strangers, 24% still showed a stress response. (This makes us question whether we, as happiness researchers, should watch Breaking Bad before going to sleep.)​

​In our highly connected working world, we are hyper-exposed to other people. This means negative emotions and stress become even more contagious as we have high exposure to negative comments on news articles and social media; stressed body language of financial news shows; stressed out people on our subways and planes; and open office plans where you can see everyone's nonverbals. In such a highly connected world, we need to find ways to improve our emotional immune system, otherwise we risk the negative effects of second handstress. Here's how:​


Change your response: In research we did at investment banking company UBS with Dr. Alia Crum from Stanford's Mind & Body Lab and Peter Salovey, founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we found that if you create a positive mindset about stress and stop fighting it, you experience a 23% drop in the negative effects of stress. When we see stress as a threat, our bodies and minds miss out on the enhancing effects of stress. (Even at high levels, stress can create greater mental toughness, deeper relationships, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, a greater appreciation for life, a heightened sense of meaning, and strengthened priorities.)  Instead of fighting and being frustrated at negative people around you, take it as an opportunity to feel compassion or a challenge to help that person become more positive. Our HBR article "Making Stress Work for You" includes more ideas on how to change your stress mindset to a more positive one.
Create positive antibodies: We need behaviors that can neutralize the negative effects of a stressed person. Instead of returning a harried coworkers' stressed nonverbals with an equally stressed grimace of your own, return it with a smile or a nod of understanding. Suddenly you have the power. As suggested in the new book Broadcasting Happiness, you can create a "power lead" to short-circuit a negative encounter. The first comment in a conversation often predicts the outcome. Try to start your phone calls not with "I'm swamped" or "I'm so busy." Instead, start with a breath and calmly say: "It's great to talk to you."
Build natural immunity: One of the greatest buffers against picking up others' stress is stable and strong self-esteem. The higher your self-esteem, the more likely you will feel that you can deal with whatever situation you face. If you are finding yourself being impacted by others' moods, stop and remind yourself how things are going well and that you can handle anything that comes your way. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem, because your brain records a victory every time you exercise, via endorphins.
Inoculate yourself: Inoculate yourself before going into work or stressful environments. For example, before we start our morning, the very first thing we do is think of three things we are grateful for that day. In this TED talk, you will learn the five positive psychology habits that help inoculate your brain against the negative mindsets of others: 1)writing a 2-minute email praising someone you know; 2) writing down three things for which you're grateful; 3) journaling about a positive experience for two minutes; 4) doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes; or 5) meditating for just two minutes.
Nowadays, we may know to avoid smoking lounges and we wash our hands after being in busy airports, but in the future, we may realize the key to health and happiness is improving our emotional immune system to protect ourselves from others' stress. And of course, it's not just other people's stress that matters — our own mindset affects the happiness of those around us. A positive mindset can improve our own lives, and the lives of everyone around us.

Shawn Achor is New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. His TED talk is one of the most popular, with over 11 million views.



Michelle Gielan, a national CBS News anchor turned UPenn positive psychology researcher, is now the bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness.

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