All of us have experienced the contagious yawn effect – a friend or coworker yawns and suddenly your mouth is open and you’re taking that deep inhale too. As social beings, we have an empathetic streak in us, and contagious yawning is just one example of it. And while contagious yawning has very little effect on our daily lives, sometimes our empathy can carry more weight than that.
Research has shown that many people are prone to picking up other people’s emotions, and unfortunately, that includes negative feelings too. Scientists think this kind of empathy is because of something in our brains called mirror neurons.
These neurons are activated when we do a certain action, but also when we see someone else do that same action – they blur the lines between seeing and doing. Think of them this way: Has someone ever tried to tell you a funny story but they couldn’t even get to the funny part because they were laughing too hard? And without even knowing why, you were cracking up right along with them? This is a prime example of mirror neurons at work.
Conversely, if a coworker comes into the office frantic and flustered and suddenly you find yourself on edge as well, you can blame mirror neurons for that too. These neurons help us bond and understand each other, but they can also cause us to take on another person’s stress.
Studies have shown that stress is a particularly contagious feeling; between coworkers and spouses, friends and families, stress is known to spread like wildfire. And if you already have anxiety or depression, you’re likely to be more susceptible to absorbing other people’s stress.
As many people already know, stress can significantly impact your health. It can contribute to heart disease, obesity, depression, diabetes, and plenty of other health complications – so taking on someone else’s stress on top of your own isn’t ideal. The good news is, there are things you can do to help stave off other people’s negativity.
For starters, you can take a step back and ask yourself if what you’re feeling is your own stress or someone else’s. Identifying your feelings will help you be able to process them. If your stress is your own, there are a number of ways to manage it – like deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. If it’s someone else’s stress getting to you, recognizing this will help you navigate accordingly.
Once you’re able to recognize that your stress is coming from someone else, you can change the way you think about it. Remind yourself that just because your coworker expects an email immediately, it doesn’t mean you have to meet those expectations.
Separating between perceived stress and reality should be able to help ease your tension. It may even be helpful to mention to certain people that treating some situations like an emergency prevents you from being as productive as you could be. Many people are unaware of the energy they’re giving off, mentioning it could be helpful for you both.
Being able to identify your feelings will help you take the right steps to work through them.
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University of Calgary.”Is your stress changing my brain? Stress isn’t just contagious; it alters the brain on a cellular level.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 March 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180308143212.htm>.
Robinson, Joe. (2013, October 21). “How Other People’s Stress Can Kill You.” Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/joe-robinson/dealing-with-stress_b_4097921.html
Acientific American. (2008, July 1). The Mirror Neuron Revolution: Explaining What Makes Humans Social. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-mirror-neuron-revolut/
Griffin, Morgan. (2014, April 1). “10 Health Problems Related to Stress That You Can Fix.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems#1