Secondhand Stress: protecting yourself Before, During and After work.
Back when I worked as a lawyer, I used to sit next to someone who had very communicative stress. He would tap his fingers on the desk, fidget, shake his leg uncontrollably, sigh, whisper F-bombs and overall just tense WAY up.
As a result, I would often find myself matching his behaviour for no objective reason. Even if I was having an easy day, with no deadlines or stressful meetings, I would notice my own heart racing and my stress levels rising. And it turns out that that is perfectly normal.
Research has shown that if someone in your visual field is anxious and highly expressive — whether verbally or non-verbally — it is likely that you’ll experience those emotions as well.
The good news, though, is that there are a few strategies that we can implement to avoid "secondhand stress". If you tend to get affected by your colleagues' stress, here are some tools that you can use Before, During and After your day at the office in order to protect yourself:
Priming your brain BEFORE going to the office
Because secondhand stress is a result of our ability to scan the world for potential threats (as explained by Heidi Hannah, author of stressaholic), a great strategy to avoid it is to prime our brain to start scanning the world for the positive rather than the negative. Shawn Achor, in his Ted Talk "The Happy Secret to Better Work" gives 5 tools to re-wire our brain in this way:
2) Journaling on a positive experience you have had in the past 24 hours
4) Meditation (just 2 minutes of meditation is enough for this to work!)
5) Random acts of kindness
Doing any of these practices every day for 21 days has been shown to inoculate your brain against the negative mindsets of others.
Avoiding secondhand stress DURING your day at the office
Okay so you made it to the office and you can feel it in the air... there is stress all around you. Even though you don't have too much going on today, you can't help but feel your own heart racing. The tension is palpable.
Quick - what do you do?!
Here's a principle that I have found very helpful to remind myself of:
The strongest energy always wins.
Have you ever noticed how some people have the capacity to change the energy in any room that they walk in? No matter the energy or the mood in the room, some people have such communicative positivity that they can bring everybody UP just through their presence alone. ... Just like some people are so negative that they also have the capacity to bring everyone DOWN in a matter of seconds.
This is because the strongest energy wins.
If the person next to you is MORE stressed-out than you are calm, you will adapt to them and subconsciously will start imitating them. But if you are calmer and more grounded than they are stressed, then they will adapt to you and start imitating you!
There are tons of ways that we can cultivate calm and relaxation throughout the day. My favorite is breathwork. For example, it has been shown that just a couple minutes of extending our exhales can be enough to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, aka. the relaxation response. So, next time you find yourself experiencing secondhand stress, try breathing in for a count of 4 and breathing out for a count of 8 - and notice how that positively impacts both you and the person next to you!
Shaking it off AFTER work
If, despite implementing the above strategies, you still find yourself getting impacted by your colleagues' stress, it is important to shake it off once you finally get home. You have taken on some emotions that do not belong to you - it's time to release them.
My suggestion here is to literally SHAKE it off.
"Shaking and grounding" is a type of somatic exercise that helps us to let go of stress by shaking and grounding the body. This video is great to guide you through it - give it a try!
I hope that this gives you tools that you can start implementing right away and, if you do implement them, I'd love to hear from you! You can always shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experience.