One of my personal favorite quotes is by business philosopher and personal development leader, Jim Rohn, who stated,

“You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.”

I have always found this quote to be inspiring, motivating me to surround myself with driven, upbeat people.  After all, positivity breeds positivity.  However, what if we cannot rightfully choose who we spend most of our time with?  That is the case for many people who spend the vast majority of their waking hours surrounded by colleagues at work.  This can be a pleasant and even uplifting experience unless you find that your fellow co-workers seem constantly stressed….

And we are a very stressed-out nation.

For the past 11 years, the American Psychological Association has conducted an annual Stress in AmericaTM poll to assess our nation’s perceived level of stress.  According to their most recent survey, stress is at an all-time record high in our nation.  Are you surprised?

Now it’s important to remember that not all stress is bad.  Stress can even be motivating, helping us to achieve our goals.  On the other hand, exposure to chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body, both mentally and physically.  Stress suppresses the immune system and has been linked to conditions like anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight gain, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and even heart disease. Furthermore, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stress plays a major role in five out of the six leading causes of death.

The Body’s Innate Stress-Response System

As humans, we are hard-wired to automatically respond to stress.  Evolutionary scientists describe that the human brain is programmed to protect us.  When faced with a potential threat, the body’s carefully orchestrated fight-or-flight mechanism enables us to quickly react by preparing our bodies to fight or run from the perceived threat.  During this process, the brain’s thalamus sends information directly to the amygdala (a small almond-shaped structure that plays a role in emotional processing), which then sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.  This “command center” triggers the release of certain hormones like CRH, ACTH, and cortisol which fuels the body with the necessary energy it needs to fight or run.  Once the perceived threat passes, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other bodily systems resume their normal functioning.

But what happens to people who experience chronic stress?  

Unfortunately, the body’s automatic stress-response system is not savvy enough to discern between acute and chronic stressors, meaning that it will continue to operate in fight-or-flight mode, which can have detrimental effects on your overall health.

Can You Catch Other People’s Stress?

The answer is Yes.  

Stress (just like airborne diseases) is contagious, meaning that we are susceptible to experiencing negative health effects associated with second-hand stress.  A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience found that stress transmitted from others has the same effect on the brain as stress experienced first-hand.  Researchers from the University of Calgary studied this effect in a group of mice.  They divided the mice into groups of two.  Next, they exposed one mouse from each pair to a mild stressor before reuniting it back with its sheltered partner.  The researchers found that both mice demonstrated very similar CRH levels, a neuron implicated in the body’s stress-response system, meaning that the stressed-exposed mouse transferred its stress over to its partner.  

Similar studies have shown that emotions from one person can be transferred over to another person, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion.  Researchers have been particularly interested in studying emotional contagion in the workplace.  Studies have found that a leader’s mood, facial expressions, and emotional performances will stimulate complementary responses from subordinates, causing them to experience similar emotions and moods.  

How Does That Happen?

Through the use of MRI scans, scientists have found evidence of mirror neurons in the brain that helps explain this process.  Thanks to social circuitry, our brains are designed in a way that supports learning, understanding, empathizing, and bonding by imitating what others are feeling and doing.  

The brain’s limbic system has an “open-loop” design which allows the transmission of signals from one person to another, altering emotions in another person.  Essentially, mirror neurons simulate the actions and emotions of others or give us the impulse to do so.  

Ever wondered why a yawn is contagious?  

Mirror neurons help to explain the automatic impulse to yawn when you witness someone else doing it.  While mirror neurons can be helpful in eliciting desirable emotions in others, they are also responsible for the mirroring of stress by coworkers and managers in the workplace.

Researchers have hypothesized that the transference of emotions and stress is an evolutionary adaptation most likely used to alert group members to a perceived threat.  

Makes sense given that we are biologically wired to help our fellow man.

But if our brains are designed to automatically mimic the emotions of others, how can we shield ourselves from the harmful effects of other people’s stress?  

According to sources, our best defense is to develop a resilient mindset.  Resiliency refers to the process of adapting well to adversity, threats, or any other significant sources of stress.  Resilient people fearlessly face challenging circumstances head-on, while maintaining a stable sense of well-being.  

Want to learn how to boost your own resiliency?  Incorporate the following habits into your daily routine if you want to have a resilient mindset. 

 11 Effective Ways to Cultivate a Resilient Mindset in the Workplace

  1. Develop strong, high-quality relationships.  The number one way to develop resiliency is by having a strong support network.  Remember the mouse study?  The University of Calgary researchers found that when the stressed-exposed female mice mingled and bonded with other female mice who were not stressed, the “effects of stress on CRH neurons were cut almost in half.”  This concept applies to humans as well.  Studies have consistently shown that people who identify having strong connections at work are more resistant to stress and happier in their overall job roles.
  2. Self-awareness, self-awareness, self-awareness.  I cannot stress this one enough.  Self-awareness is crucial for building resiliency.  People who are self-aware have a clear perception of their emotions, feelings, and thoughts and how they may impact others.  Furthermore, self-aware people can better distinguish between their own emotions and the emotions of others.  They know their limits and can identify when they are getting too overwhelmed, allowing them to effectively manage their own stress levels.
  3. Don’t drink the drama Kool-Aid.  The workplace is a perfect breeding ground for gossip and drama.  As such, it can be easy to get caught up in other people’s issues and take on their stressors.  If you find yourself getting sucked into gossip-filled conversations, try changing the subject or politely excuse yourself away from the conversation.  Make an effort to find people who are more pleasant to be around.
  4. Learn the power of the re-frame.  Stress happens all around us and while you can’t change the fact that these events will inevitably happen, you CAN change how you interpret and respond to those events.  Our subjective interpretations of events can make us feel even worse and often times, they are not even rooted in reality.  Begin by identifying those pesky automatic distorted thinking patterns.  For example, instead of forecasting the worst possible scenario, try to focus on the present situation and outline steps you can take to address challenges.  Or if you find that your emotional mind has a tendency to take over (we call this emotional hijacking), try to engage the logical/rational prefrontal cortex part of your brain by identifying three factual statements.  When you are faced with stress, try to consider the situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.  Learn to find the silver-lining in every stressful situation.  Once you are able to step back and take a more objective view, you’ll feel more empowered and in control of stressful situations.  By learning to re-frame your interpretations of stressful events, you can ultimately change your story.
  5. Boost your EQ.  Studies show that emotional intelligence provides a buffer against stress.  Emotional intelligence comprises a set of four skills that includes the ability to accurately perceive emotions, integrate emotions with thought, understand emotional causes and consequences, and managing emotions.  Emotionally-intelligent people are better able to appraise stressful situations, viewing them as challenging situations versus personally threatening.
  6. Get rid of that victim mindset.  Resilient people never think of themselves as victims.  Instead, they focus their time and energy on changing the things that they have control over.  If you want to build resilience, you must learn how to perceive obstacles as challenges rather than hinderances.  Learn to not take things personally.  Cultivate a victor mindset and never play the victim.
  7. Learn how to be present. Mindfulness practice teaches us how to remain present in the moment.  When we feel grounded, we are better able to deal with situations as they come.  Also, we can handle our emotions more effectively, without impulsively reacting to stress.  Mindfulness practice enables us to work through stress more deliberately, instead of allowing our emotional reactions to get the best of us.
  8. Put in daily effort towards achieving your goals. Begin by making a list of realistic goals.  Next, commit to doing something daily that will move you toward your goals.  Ask yourself, “What is one thing I can accomplish today that will help me move in the direction I want to go?”  Resilient people are able to view stressful situations in a realistic manner and set reasonable goals that will help them deal with the problem.  If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by a stressful situation, take a step back to realistically assess the situation.  Next, brainstorm possible solutions, and then chunk it down into several manageable steps.
  9. Cultivate a growth mindset. Resilient people almost always have a growth mindset.  They have realistic perceptions of stress and are not afraid to fail.  While they endure frustrations as much as anyone else, they are better able to find potential or value in most challenges.  They visualize their success and focus on what’s necessary to achieve their success, rather than worrying about situations they know they cannot change.
  10. Find the right balance.  Having a solid work-life balance is an effective means to counteract stress.  If you find that your job is sucking up most of your time and energy, make a concerted effort to focus some energy on other things outside of work.  Find ways to improve your personal growth and development or make a commitment to spend more time with family and friends.  Diversifying your energy will reap many benefits, including a reduction in overall stress.
  11. Take decisive action.  Learn to take stressful situations in stride and keep on fighting the good fight.  In the face of stress or adversity, it is counterproductive to avoid your problems.  Instead, face the challenges head-on and fight the adverse situation as best as you can.  Choose the right attitude that will enable you to successfully take action.  Commit to daily activities that will help you in achieving your purpose.

 

References
Avey, J. B., Avolio, B. J., & Luthans, F. (2011). Experimentally analyzing the impact of leader positivity on follower positivity and performance. The Leadership Quarterly22(2), 282-294.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1992). Primitive emotional contagion. Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 14, 151-177. Emotions and social behavior. Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage.

Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, Tamás Füzesi, Agnieszka A. Zurek, Nuria Daviu, Neilen P. Rasiah, David Rosenegger, Jaideep S. Bains (2018). Social transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress. Nature Neuroscience.