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CEO Trust Speaker, Shawn Achor, Explains How to Immunize Yourself Against Secondhand Stress

September 03, 2015 4:32 PM | Theresa Boyce (Administrator)

In his recent article for Harvard Business Review, CEO Trust speaker Shawn Achor gives tips for how to avoid “catching” others' negativity, stress, and uncertainty:

Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress

By Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan. 

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 from the University of California, Riverside found 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.)

When your taxi driver honks angrily, you can carry his anxiety all the way to work. When a boss hurriedly stalks into a room, you can pick up her stress as you try to present your ideas. Even bankers on trading floors separated by glass walls can pick up the panic of a person across the room working in a separate market just by seeing their nonverbals.

According to Heidi Hanna, a fellow at the American Institute of Stress and author of Stressaholic, secondhand stress is a result of our hardwired ability to perceive potential threats in our environment. She writes, “Most people have experienced spending time with someone who triggers a stress response just by walking in the door. This can be a conditioned response from previous interactions, but may also be an energetic communication delivered by very gentle shifts in bio-mechanical rhythms such as heart rate or breath rate.” The cues that cause secondhand stress can be very subtle changes in the people around us at work, yet they can have huge impacts.

Read full article here.