The Positive Energy Workplace

How to Protect Yourself Against Second-Hand Stress

You walk into work on a Monday, feeling pretty great, and are immediately greeted by the "stress bug." People zooming around, stressed out about the week at hand, discussing their weekend dramas, worrying about their next meeting, or just feeling overwhelmed by all the "magic" of Monday. Your mood starts to shift as you feel the pull of the "dark side" — the dark side of stress. What started out as an awesome Monday is quickly becoming a bummer. And nothing bad has even happened to you. In fact, not much has really changed for you from the moment you walked in the door. The only thing that has changed? You're surrounded by stress.

Stress is easy to "catch." Research shows that sweat produced under stress releases "alarm pheromones" that activate the amygdala (the region of brain linked to emotional arousal) and basically create stress and carefulness in others, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. Stress is contagious. And if you're not good at holding your state, it'll be easy to let that stress, or as I call it, "the lowest vibration," win.


It happens all the time: with your kids (the morning shuffle), at the grocery store (there's that stressed out guy again, with 30 items in the 10 item line), at work (you start a meeting, everyone's in good shape, one or two people are putting out the "stress vibe," and before you know it, they're sinking the room).

So what to do? It's up to you. You can't control others, but you can manage yourself. Beautifully. And when you manage yourself, you're contagious too — so it works both ways. Here are seven things you can do today to help protect yourself against second-hand stress.

  1. Breathe and get present to this moment, now. Notice your body, your breath, what's truly happening for YOU right now, not them, and breathe. Just this act of being present will give you space and perspective. You can choose if you wish to stress out or not from here.
  2. Remember, you are not them. The person who's bringing the room or conversation down with their energy and stories of stress? That's them. Not you. Don't climb on. Don't take it on. Throw them some compassion, have empathy, but don't get in the stress pit. (You'll likely only make it worse if you do anyway.)
  3. Bubble up. I teach clients and students to do what I call "bubbling up," which means activating the super power of energetic space. If you imagine you have a bubble around you — with the energy and emotion inside the bubble being all yours and everything outside the bubble being everyone else's, this can give you space to decide HOW you want to be with that person, and WHAT you want to take on or not.
  4. Watch out for story time. It's so easy to get hooked into a story: theirs, yours, your mom's. It's exhausting — and stressful. Instead, take a pause, and check in. Is it true? Whose story is it? What are you buying into? What "charge" are you getting out of the stress? Misery loves company, and in stress, hooking someone with a story can be cathartic. Swim away.
  5. Change your state. Focus on what you're grateful for. Find amusement in this moment when you're tempted to stress out. (You might even laugh at yourself.) My favorite states for avoiding (or recovering from) second-hand stress are gratitude, curiosity, compassion, amusement, and being witness.
  6. Take care of yourself proactively. Practice good IEP (Intentional Energetic Presence). Get in front of it before it's even an issue. Set your intentions at the beginning of the day (or before the meeting) for how you want to feel and how you want to show up. An ounce of proactiveness is worth 10 pounds of stress.
  7. Get into your body. You feel that stress coming on. You feel the lure of the hook. And what if no amount of breathing or mind exercises will do the trick? Feel your feet touch the ground. Your butt touch the seat. Get up, move, get into your body, dance if you must, smile, and shift.

Stress is all around us. Every day. We exude it, we sweat it, and we take it on. Feeling stress in your space is most often a result of not being present in the moment or not being present to what's yours and what's not. As a leader, the most powerful thing you can do to support the energy in your team or organization is to model healthy stress management. Of course, this starts with you. Enjoy.

This article first appeared on on March 16, 2015.

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