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How Stress Can Rub Off on You – Literally

Ever noticed that you feel a little more on edge when someone around you is losing it? This ripple effect of stress is particularly present in the household where you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with family or friends. It turns out those age-old sayings hold a great deal of truth to them – secondhand stress really is contagious.

Stress is an inherent part of life, and it plays an important role in keeping us safe – but for many of us, it can shift into overdrive. It's no secret that chronic stress can affect our own wellbeing, but did you know that it can also be contagious? The phenomenon of secondhand stress reveals that we can sense stress in others, often through the scent of cortisol in their sweat. This discovery highlights the interconnected nature of our emotional experiences and underscores the importance of finding ways to protect ourselves from the stress of those around us. We’ll be delving into the science behind secondhand stress and explore techniques to prevent it from taking a toll on our own mental and physical health.

The Science of Secondhand Stress: Cortisol and Empathy

Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is produced by our bodies in response to stressors. When we're stressed, cortisol levels rise, affecting our mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. But here's the fascinating part: when we encounter someone who is stressed, we can sense it through the chemical signals they emit, including cortisol found in their sweat. This phenomenon is rooted in empathy, our innate ability to understand and share the emotions of others. When we witness someone else's stress, our bodies can react as if we're experiencing stress ourselves, triggering a release of cortisol. While this empathy can be a sign of our social nature, along with alerting us to any danger around us, it can also lead to unwanted secondhand stress.

Techniques to Stop Secondhand Stress

  • Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help you stay grounded and focused on the present moment. This can prevent you from absorbing the stress of those around you.
  • Set Boundaries: It's important to establish clear boundaries when dealing with stressful situations or individuals. Politely but firmly communicate your limits and prioritise self-care – it might feel uncomfortable at first, but overtime upholding boundaries will become second nature. This doesn’t mean you can’t support others, it simply means you can put your own life jacket on first, figuratively speaking.
  • Maintain Healthy Relationships: Surround yourself with supportive and positive individuals who uplift you rather than drain your energy. Healthy relationships can serve as a buffer against secondhand stress.
  • Engage in Physical Activity: Regular exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress and improve overall mental health through the release of feel-good hormones. It can also help mitigate the effects of secondhand stress.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself and recognise that it's natural to experience empathy. Instead of internalising the stress of others, practice self-compassion and self-care.
  • Seek Professional Help: If you find that secondhand stress is significantly impacting your mental health, consider speaking to a therapist or counsellor who can provide guidance and coping strategies.

Empathy is a beautiful and essential human trait that allows us to connect with others on a deep emotional level. But it's crucial to strike a balance between supporting others and protecting our own health – remember, it’s okay to take a step away from someone who is downloading their stresses on you for your own mental wellbeing. By practicing mindfulness, setting boundaries, maintaining healthy relationships, and prioritising self-care, we can harness the power of empathy without succumbing to the contagion of secondhand stress. In doing so, we not only preserve our mental and physical health but also create a positive ripple effect that can benefit those around us.

Can You “Catch: Cortisol Through Physical Contact?

While cortisol can be detected in various bodily fluids, including sweat, its transmission from one person's sweat through the skin and into another person's body is highly unlikely and not supported by scientific evidence. Cortisol is a relatively large molecule, and the skin's barrier function is designed to prevent the easy passage of large molecules and microorganisms from the external environment into the body – that’s what it’s there for! While some chemicals can be absorbed through the skin under specific conditions, cortisol hasn’t been proven to be one of them just yet – that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but we just don’t have the evidence yet. The concept of cortisol transmission through sweat or skin contact should not be a significant concern in daily life. The more common means of cortisol transmission between individuals involve the exchange of emotional and psychological cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and verbal communication, rather than physical contact or exposure to sweat.

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