Picture this: You’re quietly enjoying your Americano and catching up on email when your cubemate starts melting down over her bad performance review. Or you’re about to stream last week’s episode of Scandal when your friend texts you about the major drama with her off-again guy. Even though nothing’s actually changed in your life, you may feel your blood pressure surge and your heart beat faster, just as if you were the one coping with tension and pressure. Yep, stress can spread just like a virus—and like the flu, it can make you sick, experts say. [Tweet this fact!]
We’re hard-wired to empathize with others—it’s key to survival since we have to cooperate and care for each other to live, says Alicia Clark, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. And when those around us feel the heat, scientists believe that special brain cells called mirror neurons pick up their cues. The same fight-or-flight hormones that surge through their bodies then surge through yours, making you panicky in the moment and possibly unhealthy in the long run, Clark says. Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in California recently found that emotional stress damages women’s tiniest arteries, which could eventually lead to heart attacks and other health problems.
Unfortunately there’s no vaccine for secondhand stress, but you can take steps to protect yourself and fight back if those around bring negative energy into the mix.
1. Create Some Distance
Physically leaving the room or turning off your phone can give you time to process stress without absorbing as much of it, Clark says. If you can’t escape, short-circuit the venting process by acknowledging the issue and pointing the person toward a solution. “For the friend who complains about the job she hates, you might say, ‘I understand that you don’t like your job. Have you thought about looking for a new one?’” says Jonathan Alpert, a New York psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.
2. Sort Out the Source
If your normally chill bestie needs a helping hand, that’s one thing. But most times, the same poisonous people spread stress repeatedly—and there’s no way to fix their problems without compromising your own well-being. “Toxic friends can really keep you down. It’s important not to spend too much time with people who only talk about themselves and don’t offer support,” Alpert says. Constantly feel drained after hanging out with a certain pal? It may be time to re-evaluate the relationship, he notes.
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3. Protect Yourself
If the chronically stressed-out person is your family member, teammate, or—even worse—your boss, you can’t just dump them. Instead, take a few minutes to prepare yourself to stay calm before dealing with them, says Lynn Berger, a career counselor and coach. Take a few deep breaths or listen to a relaxing song, then remind yourself that their issues have nothing to do with you. You’ll be less likely to mimic their behavior.
4. Take Action
Another reason stress spreads is that other people’s problems dredge up our own, Clark says. Get to the bottom of your reactions by trying to complete these sentences: “When Suzy was talking about her stressful day, it made me feel ____” and “I’m afraid of ______.” Your analysis can illuminate the right path. If you realize your co-worker’s breakdown has you worried about your meeting with management, prepare a list of your accomplishments so you can present them with confidence.