Overwhelmed at Work? How to Recognize and Avoid Secondhand Stress

We all know about stress. It’s what you experience when someone drives you crazy—or your car doesn’t start, or your flight is delayed, or the anticipated promotion doesn’t come through. When you’re stressed, your heart beats faster, muscles tense, blood pressure rises, and breathing speeds up. When prolonged or intense, stress can have serious health consequences, ranging from simple muscle tension and fatigue to heart attacks. Stress can cause you to feel cranky, frustrated, short-tempered, anxious, and unable to focus on tasks. Not fun!

As if this kind of stress weren’t enough, it seems that we’re also subject to secondhand stress. Analogous to secondhand smoke, it’s the stress that someone else experiences that becomes your own when you aim to defuse the other person’s stress. If your attempt doesn’t work, you feel even more stressed.

Secondhand stress may be even more anxiety-provoking and debilitating than your own stress when you lack the ability to fix or reduce it. With primary stress, you can confront your problems and try possible solutions. Not so with secondhand stress, because you may be powerless to effect change.

To protect yourself from the negative consequences of secondhand stress, allow the stress-giver to vent while you refrain from attempting to fix the situation. Ask yourself, “Whose stress is this?” Try to remain strictly a listener and not a fixer. Keep in mind that you can’t solve everyone else’s problems. By being aware that the stress is secondhand stress, you may be able to keep yourself emotionally removed from the situation.

Usually, it’s the people closest to you who are the biggest sources of secondhand stress. Therefore, it may be useful to identify the stress-givers in your life and the specific situations in which you’re susceptible to their stress. Such situations may include, for example, a colleague who is always uptight, a boss who obsesses over deadlines you know you’re going to meet, or a workplace awash in rumors about a possible merger. Once you recognize these situations as stress-provoking, you can take care of yourself by distancing yourself from the situations, meditating, or focusing on something other than the sources of stress.

Be aware that you may be the source of someone else’s secondhand stress, too. If you’re relentlessly racing from meeting to meeting, interrupting other people, finishing their sentences, and treating things as urgent when they’re not, you may be a secondhand stress-inducer.

Instead of rushing around, spreading stress in your wake, and bringing everyone down, slow down, take a deep breath, and relax. The people around you aren’t the only ones who will benefit. So will you.

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