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Just what is second hand stress?

Have you ever tried not to yawn when someone near you yawns?

baby boy laughingHave you ever tried not to laugh when someone near you is laughing? Especially when that someone is a baby.

Have you ever noticed when you have been listening to a friend list off all of their complaints or problems how unhappy, upset, frustrated or stressed you feel after?

Have you ever cried during a movie when you really felt what a character was feeling?

All of this happens because your brain is wired to transmit and receive emotions from others.

Here is a quote from an article that appeared in the December, 2011 issue of Alive Magazine called “Second Hand Stress: Our brains are wired to transmit tension” by Melissa Galea.

“Stress is contagious. And it isn’t just spread when your boss dumps a weekend’s worth of work on your desk. When one person is anxious, frazzled, or tense, others nearby pick up subconscious signals that could boost their stress levels too…

Recent research on mirror cells or mirror neurons gives us some insight into how this happens. The discovery of the mirror neuron is believed to be the physical basis for empathy.”

I was ecstatic when the Calgary Herald published an article July 21, 2008 by Albert Nerenberg, called “Are You an Empath?”

It was all about empathy and the scientific discovery of what is believed to be the physical basis of empathy – mirror cells. Below is some of what he shared in this article.

"Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others, not through conceptual reasoning, but through direct simulation," neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti told the New York Times. "By feeling, not by thinking."

The mirror cell theory suddenly explained a mysterious aspect of shared emotion. We don’t just interpret what other people experience or feel; we simulate it inside us, sometimes with incredible exactitude.

The discovery of mirror cells would take a few years to draw attention, but when it did, it was labelled one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of our time. It is now changing the way people look at emotion, connection, love and civilization. Mirror cells are the foundation of empathy, goes the theory, and empathy is the foundation of civilization.”

Here is a link to one of his more recent articles:

So how does this impact us as we attempt to navigate in a highly stressed world?

In a study by Veronika Engert and Franziska Plessow et al, they found:

“Overall, 26% of the observers displayed physiologically significant cortisol increases. This empathic stress was more pronounced in intimate observer-target dyads (40%) and during the real-life representation of the stressor (30%). Empathic stress was further modulated by interindividual differences in empathy measures. Despite the higher prevalence of empathic stress in the partner and real-life observation conditions, significant cortisol responses also emerged in strangers (10%) and the virtual observation modality (24%). The occurrence of empathic stress down to the level of HPA-axis activation, in some cases even in total strangers and when only virtually witnessing another’s distress, may have important implications for the development of stress-related diseases.”

There is continuing research corroborating the challenges we face with second hand stress no matter what environment we find ourselves in.

Not only do we have to deal with our own personal stressors, we are intimately affected by everyone else in our environment.

So what can we do?

Become mindful of your mindset. Make the effort to create a positive mindset and be mindful of your responses to people during your day.

A positive mindset can reduce your stress response by 23%. That is significant!

Here is a link to an article about this research:

If you feel you have taken on some ‘Second Hand Stress’ or are looking for ways to release some that is actually yours, here are a few tips to help:

  • Since my realization of my own empathic sensitivity, I have been collecting as many tools as I can get my hands on to help me manage it.

    Here is an amazing quote from a neuroscientist who suffered and documented her stroke and recovery process several years ago from her book, “My Stroke of Insight”.

    This reminder is incredibly powerful to sideswipe any appearance of the “Drama Queen”.

    Jill BolteTaylor – 90 Second Rule, from her book "My Stroke of Insight"

    “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop. Something happens in the external world and chemicals are flushed through your body which puts it on full alert. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body it takes less than 90 seconds.

    This means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.”

  • Release excess emotional energy. CONSCIOUSLY use the natural voice of the body. We do this all the time when we sigh or groan. These sounds stimulate the release of hormones that reduce stress and help the body heal and manage pain.

    I recommend that you do a vocalized sigh. Start around the middle of your vocal range and let the sound of your voice drop into the low range as you sigh. Notice your shoulders drop and the body relax.

  • toilet flushThis one is a little goofy, but works really well. Imagine you have a toilet flush lever by your ear. Push on the lever and imagine the swirling water flushing anything that isn’t yours easily and gently out of your body.

    Swirling water going down the drain is a vortex. Like a tornado. A vortex is a powerful image to use for clearing this kind of energy.

    If you decide to use this I recommend that you create intention that any energy that is not yours be released down the drain and immediately dissolved harmlessly.

  • I also recommend that you become really familiar with your own energy – I call it frequency – so that you can determine right away if you have taken on any energy that doesn’t feel like yours.

    Your own energy and your energy field is strong after a treatment like a massage, or reiki or any other modality that leaves you feeling balanced and calm.

    Remember this feeling and the strength in your field. This is your energy. Know what it feels like when it is strong.

    When you have a strong foundation and memory of your own energy you will more easily tell if something foreign enters your field.

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