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March 29, 2024

Stress is Contagious—Here’s What to Do

How you live with failure is negotiable. Who you are is not.
– Caroline A. Wanga, CEO of Essence

Research shows stress is an ‘emotional contagion’ that can spread to others remarkably quickly—and its effects can linger for hours, even days, according to Yale University Professor Laurie Santos. Tony Buchanan, of the neuroscience program at Saint Louis University, found watching people go through stressful situations can raise the observer’s heart rate and cortisol levels. This ripple effect is hardwired into our biology for survival. Stephanie Dimitroff, a University of Konstanz neuropsychology researcher, found similar results.

Surprisingly, Dimitroff asserts that absorbing others’ stress helps build empathy by allowing us to understand what others are experiencing. However, she distinguishes between acute or short-term stress and chronic, long-term stress, which can have detrimental health effects. She emphasizes, ‘There is no magic cure, unfortunately, but there are some techniques that have shown benefits.’

Mentally Adjust—Look at the stressor ‘as a challenge to overcome rather than a threat for you personally,’ says Buchanan.

Hold Space and Breathe—Maryam Ajayi, founder of Dive In Well, uses breathwork to calm the nervous system, particularly the box method: Inhale slowly for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, and then exhale for four counts. ‘Do this for four minutes,’ says Ajayi.

Enjoy Some Exercise—Counteract the ‘bystander stress’ reaction with exercise. It should be enjoyable, says physiology professor Jaideep Bains, noting that forced exercise can exacerbate stress. Rather than focusing on metrics like miles or minutes logged, keep it fun.

Release, Don’t Vent—Venting to a friend can feel good in the moment, but it passes your stress onto them. Ajayi suggests journaling for a healthy release. ‘I do a couple pages every morning…just free-flowing streams of consciousness. Let all your emotions come up.’ Then close the book and move on for the day.

Let it RAIN—Psychologist Tara Brach recommends RAINRecognize what is happening; allow the experience to be there; investigate the feelings that come up; and nurture yourself with positive solutions. ‘It’s mindfully and nonjudgmentally letting things be,’ says Santos. ‘That’s good medicine.’

The origins of this story are from Vogue magazine.

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