Over the past decade, we have learned how our brains are hardwired for emotional contagion. Emotions spread via a wireless network of mirror neurons, which are tiny parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others and understand what they’re feeling. When you see someone yawn, mirror neurons can activate, making you yawn, in turn. Your brain picks up the fatigue response of someone sitting on the other side of the room. But it’s not just smiles and yawns that spread. We can pick up negativity, stress, and uncertainty like secondhand smoke. The cues that cause secondhand stress can be very subtle changes in the people around us at work, yet they can have huge impacts.
In fact, you don’t have to see or hear someone to pick up their stress; you can also smell them. New research shows that stress causes people to sweat special stress hormones, which are picked up by the olfactory senses of others. Your brain can even detect whether the “alarm pheromones” were released due to low stress or high stress.
In our highly connected working 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. In such a highly connected world, we need to find ways to improve our emotional immune system, otherwise, we risk the negative effects of second-hand stress. Here’s how:
Change your response:
Research found 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.
Create positive antibodies:
We need behaviours that can neutralize the negative effects of a stressed person. Instead of returning a harried coworkers’ stressed nonverbals with an equally stressed grimace of your own, return it with a smile or a nod of understanding. Suddenly you have the power. The first comment in a conversation often predicts the outcome. Try to start your phone calls or meetings not with “I’m swamped” or “I’m so busy.” Instead, start with a breath and calmly say: “It’s great to talk to you.”
Build natural immunity:
One of the greatest buffers against picking up others’ stress is stable and strong self-esteem. The higher your self-esteem, the more likely you will feel that you can deal with whatever situation you face. If you are finding yourself being impacted by others’ moods, stop and remind yourself how things are going well and that you can handle anything that comes your way. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem, because your brain records a victory every time you exercise, via endorphins.
Inoculate yourself before going into work or stressful environments. For example, before you start our morning, the very first thing you could do is think of three things you are grateful for that day. Other positive psychology habits that help inoculate your brain against the negative mindsets of others: 1)writing a 2-minute email praising someone you know; 2) writing down three things for which you’re grateful; 3) journaling about a positive experience for two minutes; 4) doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes; or 5) meditating for just two minutes.
Nowadays, we may know to avoid smoking lounges and we wash our hands after being in busy places, but in the future, we may realize the key to health and happiness is improving our emotional immune system to protect ourselves from others’ stress. And of course, it’s not just other people’s stress that matters — our own mindset affects the happiness of those around us. A positive mindset can improve our own lives, and the lives of everyone around us.