It’s hard enough for us to manage our own stress, but when you have someone in your life who can’t handle theirs – and they lean on you (or to put it more honestly – mire you down in their stressed-out world), it can be equally harmful.
What is contagious stress? It’s stress that’s not stemming from your own life, but from someone else’s. But what happens is, because the stressed out person is in your life, you catch it easily and many times, you become just as stressed.
The Second-Hand Stress Effect
Second-hand stress can affect you the same way your own stress does. In small doses, it’s very manageable. But when you’re around someone who is constantly stressed out, and they’re around you quite a bit, it becomes overwhelming.
Stress has both a physical and mental response in your body. You might even be able to recognize the stress the moment you get around a certain person because your body reacts to their presence. It becomes conditioned to respond to them.
Depression and anxiety might be the first thing you feel when you get around this person. Their tale is always one of chaos and frustration – never peace and calm. It can make you nervous talking to them.
You also might start to feel angry more often. This is especially true if the situation is something that causes you to become angry, too. Every crisis they have suddenly becomes your crisis, too.
Physically, your body will be slammed every time you come in contact with this person. For example, you might have a headache develop while talking to them (or shortly after). Sometimes you might wake up with one because you couldn’t sleep well, thinking about everything they told you.
Your blood pressure is sure to rise when you’re in a conversation with this person. This is normal for you to experience, but if you already suffer from blood pressure issues, it can be disastrous for you to try juggling that person’s stress load, too.
Diabetes and heart disease are often associated with stress levels, and if you already have either one of these conditions, then being around stressed out people can be harmful to your health.
Skin conditions can become an issue. You might break out in hives when dealing with other people’s stress. You might have an acne outbreak – or your psoriasis or rosacea can flare up.
Of course these are all issues that can happen when you yourself have stress. The problem is, everyone experiences stress – but when you surround yourself with high-stressed individuals, you’re overdosing and it won’t be healthy for you.
People like this are like leeches. Not only do they come to you in order to soothe their frustrations, but they use to and feed off of you to get them through their tough times.
Unfortunately, by doing this, they drain you of your own good mood. Should something stressful happen to you in your own life, you won’t be equipped to handle it well – because you’re now depleted of any positivity thanks to their visit.
Not only will their foul moods sway you to becoming more negative about life in general, but your new disposition has a domino effect. You’ll put stress on your spouse, your kids, your family, co-workers and others.
What Kind of Contagious Stress Is There?
Any stress that’s truly part of your own responsibility should not be ignored – even if someone else is the one the situation is affecting more.
Your child’s stress is your responsibility. As a parent, if your little one (or teen) is enduring a lot of stress – with friends, schoolwork, sports, you name it – you need to take it upon yourself to shoulder that burden and help them get through a tough situation.
The financial stress of your household is part of your responsibility. If your spouse is suffering with their career, not bringing in enough money, then you can help them find ways to grow their contribution of the household earnings.
But you can only take on the burden so much. You can’t help it if someone is continually miserable with his or her job and they keep complaining about it day after day without ever taking steps to remedy the situation.
If someone you love is not handling their stress well – to the point that their life is in danger, then it’s natural to take that on to some degree. But if you sense there’s a danger like suicide, then you need to get the person professional help and remove yourself from the situation.
Job stress is one common form of stress that your friends or family might come to you to complain about. It’s one thing to get some quick advice about how to approach a certain situation, but another if they aren’t interested in change – but more prone to just gripe about it.
Find out if the person wants or needs your input. If you’re just a sounding board, and it never ends, then you’ll have to use one of the methods listed later in this guide to help you get relief.
Relationship stress is sometimes at the root of someone’s unhappiness. A friend might confide in you about their life behind closed doors. If they’re in danger, seek help for them.
If it’s simply a case of them allowing themselves to be a doormat for someone else, that’s when it can become a stress issue for you, even though you yourself aren’t part of the relationship.
Money stress is common for many people. Some friends or family might just be venting and sharing, while others are telling you in an effort to get you to bail them out of a money mess.
Health stress is one situation where you can help a friend or loved one shoulder the burden. If a friend needs to talk about their battle with cancer, for instance, then it’s helpful if you’re there for them, even offering to run errands or go to appointments with them.
To help you deal with this stress, you can practice stress-relieving measures yourself. That might mean aromatherapy, counseling, or exercise for you. If you can, take your friend who is in a precarious health situation and create a day out for the two of you to enjoy – like a spa day or lunch and a movie!
With health stress, if it’s short term, it probably won’t be an issue. But if you know someone dealing with long-term, or terminal illness, it can be something that is taken to the next level.
Major life change stress is another area where friends and family might reach out to you for help. These are things like marriage, birth of a child, death in the family, or even moving.
When you care about someone, obviously their pain is going to be your pain. This is normal – and it shows the deep bonds you have created with other individuals.
There’s a big difference between a friend who reaches out to you because she’s battling breast caner, and a friend who stays in a bad job and doesn’t make any effort to get herself a better career.
You have to gauge which type of stress your friend or family member is presenting. Is it something where you should be there for them unconditionally, or is it a situation where you’re exposing yourself to someone who refuses to take responsibility and merely wants another person to feel the pain with them?
Vaccinate Yourself From Other People’s Stress
It’s these types of people that we have to be careful of – the ones so mired in their own pity party that they can’t breathe – and they want you there with them so they don’t feel so alone.
Instead of being inspired by your positive outlook and using it to improve their own lives, they prefer to drag you down with them. They want to not feel so alone, and if you allow them to, they’ll chain you to their problems.
There are some people who you have to (or want to) continue being around. For these individuals, we need to have a plan in place where you can manage their stress so that it’s not affecting you.
This is a situation where you know ahead of time what you’re getting into, and yet you’re able to prevent their troubles from infecting your own life. There are three ways you can achieve this.
First, you can try steering conversation away from the repeat stress topics. For example, let’s say your friend continually gripes their spouse every time you get around them.
You just have to acknowledge what they say, offer condolences that they’re going through that, and then perk the conversion up to something more positive. Here is a sample conversation for you to see how it works:
Friend: “I’m so annoyed with Jeff. He never spends time with me anymore – he’s always out with his friends.”
You: “I understand that must hurt your feelings. Hey! Why don’t we get together next week and do something fun! Have you ever been to one of those paint and wine parties at the art store?”
You let the friend know that you heard what they said. You offered condolences. And you tried to present a positive spin on the situation. If they try to drag you back into the conversation, just nod, and “I’m sorry,” and change the topic again.
Never give them more ammunition than that. If you start asking questions and trying to be a relationship counselor, then it will just frustrate you. You might also want to get the business card of a relationship counselor and say something like, “I’m so sorry. I thought about you and picked this up the other day – since I’m not equipped to help you deal with it, so I hope this helps!” and then turn the conversation on to another topic.
The second thing you can do is fortify your own outlook – not taking on their problems. If you’re able to do this, your friend can mutter on and on about their woes and you’ll be just fine nodding your head, sympathizing, and never let it invade your emotional well-being.
You have to understand that not every problem is fixable. Not every person truly wants to fix their problems, either. Some just love having things to gripe about. Call them Negative Nellies or whatever you want, but the truth is, they don’t know anything other than unhappiness and you’ll never break through – so you can listen, but refuse to fix for them.
Lastly, you can help as much as possible without hindering yourself. What if a friend came to you complaining about her career? If she was struggling to pay her bills month after month – and yet you enjoy a great deal of wealth.
Would you feel obligated to loan money all the time? Instead, offer advice about resources they can use to change their life – but don’t make their problems your problems.
Setting Uncomfortable Boundaries That Offer You a Better Life
Sometimes when you’re unable to distance yourself in one way (like becoming emotionally un-invested in their issues), you have to distance yourself a different way – physically.
It doesn’t mean you have to cut all ties with someone (although in extreme cases, that may be what has to happen, depending on how bad it’s affecting you and your family).
Set a limit on your phone conversations. If your friend has a habit of calling you after work and droning on and on for two hours about their horrible life, make it a point to end the conversation at a certain amount of time, like 15-20 minutes. In `25fact, you might tell the person when they first call that you can’t talk long.
Meet with them in settings where other people or distractions are present. These kinds of stressed people usually want all of the attention on themselves. They don’t want to share the spotlight, so by forcing it to be in a place where your attention is divided, they’ll feel less like sharing – or if they do, you’ll easily be able to get out of the conversation and seek relief.
Be honest with them about how their stress is affecting your life. Some people just aren’t aware of how they act. In a loving way, let them know that you care about them and sympathize with their situation – but you have to alleviate stress in your life for your own reasons, so you’ll need to keep the conversation light.