Empathy is a wonderful thing. In fact, it’s an essential characteristic of resilience. Understanding what makes people tick, and most importantly, what they need, is what connects you with others, which in turn bolsters your ability to weather life’s rough patches.
But being attuned to others’ emotions means that you’re potentially leaving yourself wide open to their frantic, messy, grousing, all-around unpleasant feelings, too. Think of the last time you sat down with a coworker or friend who was up to her eyeballs in stress. It’s a safe bet that your internal temperature started to rise with every sullen silence or hurried bite. By the time she walked away, your own head hurt!
You weren’t imagining it: You just caught some second hand stress. And if you’re the one doing the ranting, you’re also the one spreading stress all over the place. That’s not connection. That’s at best unpleasant, and at worst it’s emotional abuse.
Researchers have long known about the phenomenon of contagious stress. Partly, it’s a function of our brains being wired to mirror the actions and emotions of others. “Even if we’re not physically imitating what we see, mirror neurons still fire off a simulated version of the activity in your head as if you actually did it,” writes author Joe Robinson. “It’s all designed to help us learn, understand, empathize, and connect with what others are doing and feeling.”
Other people’s negative emotions hit us particularly hard, and bad moods abound. They’re a fact of life. That leaves you with two questions. First, how do you stay centered when someone else’s negativity barrels at you? Second, how do you take responsibility for how you convey your own stress?
The endgame here is to build authentic, empathetic connections that can be support systems in times of stress, rather than emotional dumping grounds. Here’s how to do it.
How to Build a Buffer Zone
Your instinct might be to shut down emotionally when you’re near a stressed-out person. Or to cut yourself off from other people so you don’t act like a jerk. This is a short-term solution that won’t serve you well long term, because 1) the delayed stress will only grow stronger the longer you wait to deal with it, and 2) isolation doesn’t build relationships. It weakens them. Besides, how long can you truly put off seeing your boss or spouse or child?
Instead, an emotional buffer zone allows you the space to feel, acknowledge, and name your reactions as they are happening. You may not be able to process every single feeling, but you’ll have created mental space to protect yourself from the intensity of the other person and manage your response to it. On the flip side, an emotional buffer zone can give you room to gather yourself, reflect on your actions, and redirect your energy when you’re spewing negativity.
1. Trap, Map, and Zap Your Triggers
At meQuilibrium, one of our core beliefs about stress is that while you can’t control what happens to you or around you, you can control how you respond to it. In the case of second hand stress, this means that you are accountable for how you both react to the hyper-rushed colleague or grumpy spouse and how you express your own stress. And the sooner you practice being accountable, the faster you see that you have some control over what you do and why.
Try this: Learn to trap it, map it, and zap it. Say you have a run-in with the colleague who makes you feel crazy, or you feel yourself starting to vent loudly at a friend. Take five minutes to reflect on the situation.
First, trap it: observe your emotions and where you feel them in your body.
Next, map it: identify the thought going through your head that’s causing the emotion. What thought or story flashed through your mind that created that emotion?
Finally, zap it: Challenge the thought. Is it true? Recognize that most of what you’re feeling came from your interpretation, not from reality.
The next time you encounter this person or your own stress, you’ll be primed to recognize your thoughts and feelings, and you’ll have the skills to process them quickly.
(Read more about how to trap, map, and zap negative thoughts.)
2. Become an Olympic-Caliber Relaxer
The more you practice simple relaxation techniques, the faster and more powerfully they come to your aid when you need them. When you can relax your body in the midst of external and internal stress, you can build an emotional buffer zone at the drop of a hat.
Try this: Breathe in, breathe out. I recently read this line in an article about stress reduction techniques and loved it: “If you can regulate your breath, you can regulate pretty much everything.” Breathing is your all-purpose, 24/7 ally in keeping your head while everyone about you is losing theirs. (Tip of the hat to Rudyard Kipling, who knew a thing or two about resilience.) Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and governs your body’s relaxation response. And it’s easy: On an inhale, fill your lungs fully, hold for a second or so, and then exhale in a relaxed way. Continue for 60 seconds. (Find more of our favorite simple relaxation practices.)
3. Make Friends with Boundaries
Sometimes a buffer zone does need to be literal as well as emotional. This is about knowing what your limits are–and respecting them, especially when friends, co-workers, or family members can’t or won’t. Make it clear what you will and will not tolerate in your presence. Boundaries also make it clear what sort of behavior is not okay for you to do to others. If you firmly believe in being kind to your spouse, then yelling at him over the phone because you lost your car keys is a violation of that boundary.
Try this: Write a personal bill of rights. Setting boundaries that stick can be hard, often more so for women. Marriage and family therapist Diane Lancer suggests writing a personal bill of rights to clarify your bottom line needs for your mental health.
Maybe this means putting the kibosh on some topics of conversation. Maybe it means taking physical space from the other person before you start to rant. It takes time and practice to communicate boundaries with confidence and compassion, so knowing your core values here will help you persist when you really do need to draw the line. Remember, the effort is well worth it. The clearer and calmer your boundaries, the more positive, respectful and supportive your connections will be.