Is Stress Contagious?

In a word, YES. I write a lot about stress because managing stress is instrumental to long lasting weight loss.  Stress increases appetite hormones, weakens self-control, causes fatigue, and disrupts sleep—all enemies of weight loss success, not to mention good health.

Each of us has a certain amount of stress resulting from our families, jobs, and life responsibilities, but some stress is passed from person to person.  In this post I want to focus on the contagiousness of stress, this is our tendency to take on other people’s stress.  Here are 3 ways this may be happening to you.

1.  The Eggshell Dropper. You know the type, the person who has everyone around them walking on eggshells.  This person gets upset easily, sometimes unpredictably, and when they do, everyone around knows about it and could suddenly become the target for blame. These people have everyone on “high alert” in anticipation of the next stress out. Living, working, or being friends with someone who is often visibly and/or verbally stressed can cause you to be stressed just as a function of being in their presence.  Being around someone who has a high level of anxiety, hostility, depression, or any negative emotion can cause you to experience negative emotions in reaction, such as anxiety, frustration, fear, anger. If you have an eggshell dropper in your life, you might try to stay out of their wake when stress is brewing. If you can’t, you might attempt to communicate with them as soon as you start to notice the stress brewing to help resolve the situation before it escalates.  To the extent that you can limit your time with them to the amount that you can tolerate without experiencing overwhelming bad moods, doing so will make your relationship with them more manageable.

2. Hey Is That Stress You Are Having? Can I Have Some Too?  I had a patient once tell me she lost track of her weekly diet and exercise goals because her neighbor’s brother died.  I said, “Ohh, did you know her brother?” she said, “No.”  I said, “Ohh, did you go to the funeral?  Are you really close to your neighbor?” she said, “No and we aren’t that close.”  I was then puzzled as to why this event seemed to thwart her entire week.  Over time I noticed that she had a strong tendency to feel other people’s stress, regardless of whether the people were even close to her.  Just hearing about a death made her anxious about losing her own loved ones and sent her into bad feelings that she had a hard time turning off.  People who are high in empathy and also have difficulty shutting off negative feelings may be vulnerable to this pattern. If you are often the shoulder for others to cry on, be mindful about the toll this role plays on you. You may need to back off some for your own good.

3. The “I’m The Busiest Person On Earth” Super Delegator.  Sometimes people unload their stress onto others by handing off their responsibilities. Don’t get me wrong, delegating is a great coping strategy but these people take it to an extreme by imposing on others far more than is reasonable. They may even delegate every task they have on their plate, leaving themselves with a very light load. If you find yourself the object of a Super Delegator, you may be allowing them to shift their stress to you.  The ultimate danger is that you may be setting a bad precedent about whose work is whose.  For example, imagine the coworker who frequently asks you to help them with a few tasks because they are so stressed, but then eventually it somehow becomes an expectation that you will do these tasks all the time.  This also happens a lot between spouses, siblings, and even in parent/child relationships. Do you have any responsibilities that started out as a favor to someone else who was stressed out?  It might be a good time to take inventory and shift any of those tasks back to their rightful owner.

Although it is hard to renegotiate relationship expectations in the ways suggested above, keep your eye on the benefits of doing so.  By cutting out a few spare stressors you will free up the time needed to invest in yourself.  To take that yoga class, to pack your lunch for work, to meditate, or to get that extra hour of sleep.  The Egg Shell Droppers and Super Delegators of the world are just going to have to wait their turn.

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