Avoiding Second-Hand Stress

Simply being around someone who is stressed can trigger our body's stress response. Here is how to avoid ruining everyone else's day.

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By Lisa Evans Originally published Feb 18, 2014


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Do you speed into the office like a tornado whizzing between your Blackberry and iPad? Do you check email while in a meeting, giving the impression that you're simply too busy to focus on one thing at a time? This frenzied behavior may be causing those around you to suffer from second-hand stress. Heidi Hanna, author of Stressaholic: 5 Ways to Transform Your Relationship with Stress, says the contagious nature of second-hand stress blocks productivity and negatively impacts health and general well-being.

The brain is sensitive to picking up cues from others, including shallow breath patterns, rapid speech, elevated heart rate, changes in tone of voice and physical tension. By subconsciously picking up on these biological rhythms, simply being near someone who is stressed can trigger our body's stress response, creating what psychologists and neuroscientists call "second-hand stress."

"Our brain is hard-wired to be on high alert to potential threats," says Hanna. "Picking up these non-verbal physiological changes in a person near us is going to cause us to mirror that same response to protect ourselves."

Related: Enjoy Life, Live Longer

When we become aware of stress of others, it sends a signal to our brain that we, too, should be worried. Open offices are especially volatile to second-hand stress. Being visible to everyone creates a need to look busy -- keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak -- and can create an inferiority complex and a culture of insecurity.

Second-hand stress can lower productivity since stress requires a greater amount of energy to fuel potential fight or flight situations. The more stressed we become, the more fatigued we become as the day goes on.

Second-hand stress not only spreads to employees and co-workers, but to clients as well -- and can cost business. "It's important that when you're meeting with a client, you're bringing your best energy to the moment," says Hanna. No one wants to do business with individuals who make them feel stressed out.

Related: 6 Steps to Salvage an Unproductive Day

Follow these tips to eliminate second-hand stress in your office:

Stay calm. Poised executives give the impression of being more competent than those who are frantically running around and send a signal to employees that they too can slow down. Take a few deep breaths before communicating or interacting with others. "Second-hand stress can also be transmitted through email, so saving messages as drafts first and spending a few extra moments re-reading for not just type but also tone can be helpful," says Hanna. Slow down when speaking with others and make them feel that they're worth your time, rather than hurrying the conversation along so you can get to the next important thing on your to-do list.

Take breaks. Hanna recommends scheduling five-minute breaks every hour. Practicing deep breathing, exercising regularly or adding humor into your day are great ways to build recovery into your day.

Create a second-hand-stress-free culture. Encourage everyone on the team to take re-charging breaks and do what they need to protect their energy. Hanna says organizations that don't promote a culture of rest for productivity are instead perpetuating the idea that busyness is valued, an idea that creates heightened stress across the organization.

Related: 21 Ways Your Office Job Is Destroying Your Body

Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is a health and lifestyle freelance journalist from Toronto.

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