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Why You're SO Stressed Even Though Life Is Good

By Carla Birnberg ; Updated August 14, 2017

Have you ever felt vaguely anxious without being able to pinpoint precisely why?

While we might do everything we can to mitigate the effects of stress, it isn’t always something we can control.

Internalizing someone else’s stress is remarkably similar to ingesting secondhand smoke. You don’t need to be actively smoking to experience the dangerous side effects — and it’s the same with stress.

When others around you radiate anxiety, it's analogous to being trapped in an airplane with a smoker. Except this time the poison you ingest secondhand is emotional.

Once we become aware of secondhand stress, however, it becomes easily identifiable in many facets of our lives.

Identifying Secondhand Stress at the Office

We expect to feel pressure and stress in the workplace when deadlines have to be met or important deals are in the offing.

But have you noticed you’ve become increasingly anxious when others at work are going through stressful situations that don’t directly affect you?

Or do you internalize the feeling of other people’s mounting tension even when your work-life balance is in order?

You’re experiencing secondhand stress.

Identifying Secondhand Stress at Home

For most of us, home is a safe place to fall. It’s our guaranteed oasis of calm where we can collapse, relax and recharge. This haven, however, can be disrupted for the entire family when one member is under a lot of stress.

Have you ever walked into your house after a great day only to sense something in the air and immediately find your good mood turn dark? Or have you ever sat down to a peaceful family dinner and slowly started to feel increasingly agitated for reasons you can’t identify?

You’re experiencing secondhand stress.

Identifying Secondhand Stress Out in the World

Think about the last time you waited in a long, slow-moving line. Perhaps you were at the grocery patiently waiting/daydreaming and grateful not to be in a rush. Now imagine the person behind you isn’t handling the situation quite as gracefully and is sighing audibly and muttering angrily to herself.

What sensations happen in your body?

The longer she sighs, stomps her foot and grumbles in anger, the more her stress permeates your calm exterior and you, too, begin to feel frazzled.

You’re experiencing secondhand stress.

4 Ways to Fight Secondhand Stress

But no matter the setting in which you find yourself internalizing another person’s stress, there are four ways you can avoid ingesting the poison.

1. Distance yourself physically and/or emotionally.

When you’re around someone who’s radiating stress, it’s crucial to physically move away from that person. Research shows that if you’re in close proximity to someone experiencing high levels of stress, you’ll most likely experience the same stress.

And if that person is a loved one or close friend, it may be necessary to distance yourself emotionally as well. It can be challenging, but it’s just as important a protection from the feelings of secondhand stress.

2. Remind yourself that the stress isn’t about you.

At times, no matter how confident we are, it’s easy to wonder if we did something to spark the stress.

When it comes to ingesting secondhand stress, it’s important to remain aware you didn’t cause the stress (e.g., you didn’t make the grocery line move slowly) and it has absolutely nothing to do with you. Focusing on this fact — the mantra “It’s not about me” works well — will help increase your immunity to secondhand stress.

3. Engage the stressed person in conversation.

This tip seems counterintuitive, yet often the source of the secondhand stress doesn’t realize he’s emanating negative energy. Initiating conversation (about anything) diffuses the individual’s stress, so you, in turn, can feel calm too.

It’s important to remember that encouraging others to relax may not always be received well. If this happens, remind yourself that you can only control your reactions to situations and revisit the second tip above.

4. Shift responses to other people’s feelings.

You’ll never be able to control whether people around us emit stressed-out vibes. You do, however, possess the ability to shift your own reactions to the stress. Restructuring how you react physically and emotionally to secondhand stress is a powerful tool in fending it off.

One way of doing this is to harness the power of visualization. When you sense secondhand stress, visualize yourself safely surrounded by a stress-deflecting wall.

Another response shift might take the form of “killing it with kindness,” or simply smiling at the stressed-out individual as a form of defense. Smiles release endorphins and are, in fact, contagious — just like a yawn.

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