Secondhand Stress: Your Mood Matters!

For better or worse, the people we interact with each day have a significant impact on our mood. This article explores how secondhand stress works and how our body is subconsciously picking up on the verbal and non-verbal signals that are being transmitted…and that includes Zoom calls! Having awareness and ideas on how to deal with this real function of our mirror neurons is a major step towards limiting the negative effects of internalizing the stress of others.


I'm going to throw three words out, and let's see what they make you think of: vaccinate, quarantine and immunity. I'll venture a guess and say Covid came to mind as the first association your brain made. No surprise there, Covid has laid claim to certain words and created plenty of new terms that will probably stick around for a while after we're all through this. To be clear, I'm not talking about Covid in this context, although there is a bit of a tie-in to the pandemic. (It seems like virtually every topic has some connection to Covid at this point, yeah?).


I'm referring to something also highly contagious that we should seek to vaccinate ourselves against—second-hand stress. The good news is that we can build immunity, but step #1 is being aware of the causes and symptoms. Doubtless, we are all familiar with the concept of stress and the multitude of causes for it in our own life. I would speculate that you also know that prolonged, chronic stress can cause all sorts of health problems. That's a broad topic unto itself, and one we will look at in-depth in another column, but for today let's zero in on this concept that the people around us and their general mood have a significant impact on us. I bring this up now as a timely topic for a couple of reasons.


Reason one is that 'RTW' (return to work) is becoming a reality for the many people that had switched to working from home in the past year, which means that a shared workspace will be part of the daily routine once again. Another reason the topic of second-hand stress is so current is that Covid related anxiety levels remain in a Code Red status for so many people. So unless you are in relative isolation, it's likely you are involved with either passing along or catching this emotional contagion. (Possibly some combination of both!)


As a brief overview of how this whole thing works, let's start with the term mirror neurons. We all have them as factory equipment, and there is no off switch. For a quick and easy example, look no further than having the impulse to yawn when we see someone else do it. It doesn't even matter if it's real-life or on a screen; either one can trigger a mirrored response in us. Basically, these mirror neurons serve as a wireless network that subconsciously syncs up with the emotions of those around us.


Think of these mirror neurons like an emotional Bluetooth that automatically pairs when a compatible device comes into range. Instead of your iPhone pairing with your car when you turn it on, it's your brain pairing with people that come into our orbit. This hardwired trait is believed to have initially been for survival purposes in picking up on the slightest cues from potenti