How to protect your calm from secondhand anxiety

Secondhand anxiety

It’s tiring to be around someone who complains, thrives on drama, or is always high-strung and rushing around.

After spending time with this person, you may feel drained, edgy, or fatigued for hours — even days.

Why? Well, studies shows that anxiety and stress, just like the flu or yawning, is contagious.

How secondhand anxiety works

Mirror neurons in the brain give us the capacity to understand others. (It’s how we develop empathy.) But it also means we’re wired to absorb other people’s negativity or frustration. Simply observing someone expressing anger increases stress hormones in the body 26 percent.

This emotional contagion effect is strongest with those closest to us — family members, friends, or romantic partners — and may be heightened at certain, more stressful times of the year. (Hello, holidays!)

What secondhand anxiety does

Secondhand anxiety can show up in many ways: worrying about other people’s problems, feeling jittery without knowing why, or rushing because someone else is, to name a few.

We know chronic stress contributes to all sorts of long-term health problems, which is why as the holidays approach, it’s essential to get plan in place to safeguard your happiness. Here are a few ways how to improve your emotional immunity and protect yourself from secondhand anxiety:

1. Stop the spread of stressHumans are social creatures. When we see someone else stressing out, we might instinctively model them. You may think, “He’s freaking out, so I should be worried too,” or follow their lead and expect the worse.

These unhelpful reactions are automatic, but can be changed. Pause and tune into your response. Knowing your own stress style is one way to begin catching yourself before you overreact to bad vibes around you.

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2. Empathize, don’t internalize. In any relationship, all we can do is take 100 percent responsibility for our 50 percent of the interaction. Put simply, you can only take ownership of yourself. You can’t fix or change other people. In fact, that would be unhealthy codependency.

Instead of taking on another person’s anxiety, see it as an opportunity to practice compassion for them. Validate their concerns. Give them an opportunity to share what’s stressing them out, but don’t join in on the negativity. You’ll only reinforce it and perpetuate the habit.

Remember, they’re imperfect just like you, so try to recall a time you were super stressed out. How would you have liked the people around you respond? Probably with kindness and understanding. Give other people the safe space that you wish you had.

3. Keep your own anxiety levels low. You’re probably sick of hearing experts saying to slow down and focus on your breath, but it’s for good reason: it’s one of the easiest ways to regulate stress and boost your immune system.

Meditation and exercise are other great happiness boosters that’ll get good endorphins flowing. You can also steer your attention towards the positive by surrounding yourself with people and things that spark joy.

4. Bolster your boundariesCreating boundaries is an act of self-care. Know when to step away from an interaction that isn’t serving you. For instance, you may need to limit time with certain people, try a social media detox, or physically leaving the room.

Other times, communicating clear expectations (“I can chat for five minutes, then I have to run” or “Let’s pick a time to revisit this so I can give you my full attention”) may do the job. By doing so, you support those you love and care with self-respecting limits firmly in place.

Increasing your self-awareness, setting healthy boundaries, and tending to your own emotional well-being are strong antidotes to keeping secondhand anxiety at bay. The more you reinforce your own resilience and put out positive vibes, the more you become part of the solution, not the problem.

Melody Wilding

Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others. 



Top image by Unstuck artist-in-residence Bridgette Zou (This Feels Nice Series, 2017, © Bridgette Zou)



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