The boss walks into the conference room and slams down his notepad on the table. Startled, nearly everyone around the table jumps.
As he sits down, he angrily demands to know why the project is so far behind schedule. The tension in the room is palpable.
The person to my client’s left starts tapping her pencil nervously. I notice that people are fidgeting, rocking in their chairs, and breathing shallowly. This is a classic stress reaction.
When you walk into a room and notice a negative “vibe” that makes you feel anxious, you’re not imagining things. Other people’s emotions can have a huge impact on us, especially those of our co-workers and family members.
This happens in part because of mirror neurons. Our brains are actually wired to understand and mirror the feelings and actions of others.
For the same reason that you yawn when you see someone else yawn, you can also pick up what some researchers are calling “second-hand stress.”
Empathy and intuition are often seen as great characteristics and essential components of strong relationships. All the work that’s been done on emotional intelligence teaches us the importance of being able to sense how others are feeling and to adjust our own emotions accordingly.
The downfall of this sensitivity, however, is that we can unwittingly open ourselves up to absorb the stressful behaviors of others. If someone is nervous or angry their negative energy can impact your behaviors and you may not even know it!
When you experience an energetic stress reaction, your mind AND your body responds by preparing you for your natural flight or fight response. This physiological reaction—which dumps cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline into your system—can not only impact you in the moment by raising your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, but it can also suppress your immune system and cause long-term illness.
The fact that your own stress levels can be influenced by others’ behaviors is a big deal. I’m frequently hired by leaders to help them manage their stress reactions so that they can communicate more effectively with others and feel more in control when it comes to their approach to work. Knowing how to insulate yourself is critical to your emotional health and well-being, as well as your satisfaction and productivity.
Here’s how you can protect yourself from experiencing stress by proxy:
1) Create a safe zone for yourself.
You may need to insulate your own energy from the negative effects of others’ behavior. To do this, my good friend and mind-body coach, Christine Springer, recommends a strategy to apply an “Energy Bubble” around yourself. This bubble is like a protective layer of armor that you can put on at the beginning of each day or before you enter a potentially stressful situation.
2) Focus on creating a positive mindset about stress.
I know this sounds counterintuitive. Usually, we see stress as a threat—that’s why we go into our natural flight or fight response. When you understand that stress isn’t necessarily “bad,” you can experience a 23% drop in the negative effects of stress and begin to channel your energy in more helpful ways.
3) Learn to shift your behaviors.
Instead of feeding into others’ stressful behaviors (verbal or non-verbal), intentionally practice an opposite—and calm—reaction. For example, when you see someone nervously fidgeting or angrily scowling, try taking a few deep breaths and smiling (this can actually stimulate a positive neural reaction in your brain!).
My challenge to you is to observe yourself carefully over the next week or so.
Notice how you feel when you’re around others who are exhibiting stressful energy. What impact does their behavior have on you? How can you practice being more mindful and insulate yourself?
Also be mindful of your own behaviors and their effects on those around you. Lead your team with positive energy and they will reflect those positive behaviors and get better results.
My bet is that just by paying attention, you can begin to shift your own behaviors and reactions and feel more positive and calm.