In today’s interconnected world, emotions spread like wildfire, carried by a wireless network of mirror neurons in our brains. These tiny cells allow us to empathize and understand others, but they can also make us highly susceptible to their emotional states. When you see someone yawn, your own brain fires up, mimicking the fatigue response. But it’s not just smiles and yawns that are contagious. We can absorb negative emotions, stress, and uncertainty just as readily as we inhale secondhand smoke, putting our well-being at risk. While this ability to connect with others is essential, it’s important to be mindful of the emotional atmosphere we create and the emotions we choose to embrace.
A study by Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio of the University of California, Riverside, has demonstrated that observing the anxious behavior of another, verbal or nonverbal, can lead to the transfer of those emotions and negatively affect cognitive performance.
Witnessing someone’s stress can instantly reverberate through our own nervous systems. A study revealed that 26% of people exhibited elevated cortisol levels just by observing stress in another. This phenomenon, known as second-hand stress, becomes even more potent with close relationships like romantic partners (40% increase) compared to strangers. However, even observing stressful situations through video with unfamiliar faces can trigger a stress response in 24% of individuals, highlighting the contagious nature of this emotional state.
While some feel deeply attuned to the moods of others, not everyone experiences this to the same degree. However, research suggests that even subtle nonverbal cues can be picked up unconsciously, creating a shared emotional atmosphere in spaces like buses, offices, and even trading floors. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own internal world, and while empathy is valuable, it’s also crucial to maintain healthy boundaries to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the emotions of others.
Heidi Hanna, a fellow at the American Institute of Stress and author of “Stressaholic,” reflects that second-hand stress arises from our innate ability to detect potential threats in our surroundings. She notes, “Most of us have encountered someone whose mere presence triggers our stress response. This could stem from previous interactions, but it might also be due to subtle energy communication through changes in biomechanical rhythms like heart rate or breath.” Even the most minor cues emanating from colleagues or others in our environment can trigger significant second-hand stress, despite their seemingly insignificant nature.
Beyond sight and sound, stress can also be sniffed out. New research reveals that stress triggers the release of unique hormones in sweat, detectable by our olfactory senses. The brain can even distinguish if these “alarm pheromones” were triggered by mild or intense stress, meaning negativity and stress can literally waft into your room.
Sophisticated research reveals a chilling truth: negativity is not just contagious, it’s toxic, impacting everything from business performance and educational attainment to our very cells, even shortening our lifespans.”
Beyond ‘no venting’ zones, companies like Ritz-Carlton and Oschner Health Systems are implementing broader initiatives to promote employee well-being. These initiatives, recognizing the link between employee well-being and positive customer experience, encompass stress management training, mindfulness practices, and supportive workplace cultures.
In our highly-connected digital world, we are hyper-exposed to other people. This means negative emotions and stress become even more contagious as we have high exposure to negative comments on news articles and social media, stressed body language of financial news shows, stressed-out people on our subways and planes, and open office plans where you can see everyone’s nonverbals. We need to build emotional resilience in this hyper-connected world. By practicing mindfulness, setting healthy boundaries, and nurturing our inner peace, we can avoid the pitfalls of second-hand stress and cultivate the emotional well-being that leads to stronger relationships, better health, and a more fulfilling life.
Modify your perspective
In research with Dr. Alia Crum from Stanford’s Mind & Body Lab and Peter Salovey, founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, identified that if you create a positive mindset about stress and stop fighting it, you experience a 23% drop in the negative effects of stress. When we see stress as a threat, our bodies and minds miss out on the enhancing effects of stress. (Even at high levels, stress can create greater mental toughness, deeper relationships, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, a greater appreciation for life, a heightened sense of meaning, and strengthened priorities.) Instead of fighting and being frustrated at negative people around you, take it as an opportunity to feel compassion or a challenge to help that person become more positive. Make stress work for you and overcome obstacles in order to change your stress mindset to a more positive one.
Create your power lead
We need behaviors that can neutralize the negative effects of a stressed person. Instead of mirroring someone’s stress, we can choose behaviors that break the chain and create positive interactions. Meeting a stressed person’s non-verbals with a smile or a nod of acknowledgment can subtly shift the energy. They may feel seen and understood, even without words. You have the power to influence the tone of interactions. A simple, positive “power lead” like a smile or a calm greeting can set a positive trajectory for the dialogue ahead.
Build your natural buffer
Like a sturdy shield, healthy self-esteem deflects the emotional impact of others’ stress. The more confident you are in your own abilities, the less likely you are to be swept away by their anxieties. When you trust your own resilience, even turbulent emotions around you won’t feel as threatening. A strong sense of self-worth fuels the confidence to navigate any challenge. When someone else’s stress starts to seep in, take a mental pause. Reassess your own calm center, remembering your recent successes and strengths. This quick self-reinforcement empowers you to face any emotional contagion. Exercise isn’t just good for your body; it’s a self-esteem booster! Each workout becomes a tangible achievement, flooding your brain with endorphins and reinforcing your sense of capability.
Boost your resilience before diving into busy days, stressful environments, or negative mindsets. Instead of rushing into the fray, invest in yourself first. This could be as simple as starting your morning by reflecting on three things you’re grateful for. Research in positive psychology shows that consistent, simple practices can act as “mental armor” against negativity. This TED Talk explores five powerful habits you can easily incorporate into your routine:
- Praise power: Spend 2 minutes writing a genuine email praising someone you know.
- Gratitude boost: Jot down three things you’re grateful for that day.
- Positive replay: Journal about a past positive experience for 2 minutes.
- Move it out: Get your heart pumping with 30 minutes of cardio exercise.
- Inner calm: Find your center with just 2 minutes of meditation.
The beauty of these practices lies in their simplicity and accessibility. Each can be done anywhere, anytime, and requires minimal resources. Yet, their combined impact on your mental well-being can be significant. Start small, choose a habit that resonates with you, and witness the positive transformation as you navigate demanding situations with newfound optimism and strength.
Just as we instinctively avoid smoky spaces and wash our hands after navigating crowded airports, restaurants, and shops, the future of well-being may lie in strengthening our emotional immune systems. This isn’t just about shielding ourselves from the stress of others; our own mindsets, like invisible force fields, subtly influence the happiness of those around us. As we step into the new year, cultivating a positive outlook can not only enrich our own lives but also ripple outward, creating a more vibrant and resilient ecosystem of well-being for everyone.