I happened on a very interesting article in the Huffington Post recently about how we mimic other people’s emotional states. It is a well proven fact that stress has adverse effects on our health, both mental and physical. Hans Selye http://www.stress.org/about/hans-selye-birth-of-stress/ proved in his experiments that stress makes us more prone to infections and even death. Since his early research, medical science has added to his results with much more data that reenforces the adverse effects of stress.
Researchers have long known about the infectious nature of stress. Pass-along strain runs rampant in relationships and work settings. Studies have shown that there is “crossover” stress from one spouse to the other, between coworkers, and “spill over” from the work domain to home. The stress contagion effect, as it’s known, spreads anxiety like a virus. Our mirror neurons help suck us into the emotional eruptions of others. Mirror neurons were first identified in the 1990s by Italian scientists studying how the brain controls mouth and hand movements in macaques. (1) Researchers found that a distinct batch of cells lit up when the monkeys performed or even observed specific movements. Mirror neurons are thought to operate similarly in humans. Located near motor neurons responsible for movement, speech, and intention to act, they simulate the actions and emotions of others or give us the impulse to do so — thus, one of life’s great mysteries, the contagious yawn. You’re not remotely sleepy, but you cut loose with a jaw-popper after the person next to you has done the same.
The Holmes and Rahe stress scale was developed by two researchers who realized that stress could be quantified. They assigned “points” to various life events, both positive and negative events, and found, that statistically, people who had 300 or more points over a period of time had a higher rate of ill health, death, or accidents than people with lower scores. Of course this can be individualized, if there is something in your life not mentioned in the stress scale, you can add it to your score, after all this is a tool for you to measure your stress, not a “research” project. Here’s a link to more information about the stress scale
There are many things we can do to decrease stress in our lives. One thing to decrease our stress is to limit the amount of change in our lives over a short period of time. Sometimes this is difficult to do because we may experience a divorce, job change and moving house in a very short period of time, as well as financial difficulty, trouble with our children, and so on. So if there is a choice, keep the changes to as few as possible.
This is one reason that I caution people who have been widowed or divorced to not jump into another relationship for at least a year, or even two is better, to let the effects of the numerous changes (stress) in your life decrease.
After my husband died, only eight months later, I jumped into a relationship because of my grief and loneliness and it was a big mistake…the man I dated and fell in love with turned out to be a serial cheater. Had I not been under terrific stress from my husband’s death there’s no way I would have gotten involved with this man. Fortunately, I came to my senses before I married him.
In addition to avoiding as much change as we can, we can engage in mindful meditation which has been shown clinically to decrease stress in practitioners. All it takes is a bit of practice and there are many books, CDs etc to help you get started. We should also avoid situations in which we are around other people who are stressed out so that we don’t mirror their emotions as well. If we are able, it might even mean that we stop socializing with our “drama queen” friends, or take a less stressful job than the one we might currently have.
Sometimes there’s no realistic way to decrease some of our stress, but by focusing on doing as much as we can to decrease change and avoiding people who are “contagious” with stress, we can make a decided difference in our own stress level. Changes in our life style as well can help decrease the effects of stress. Stop unhealthy habits such as excess drinking or smoking, increase exercise which has been shown to decrease or “burn off” the stress hormones. Get enough sleep and eat healthy foods, and if necessary, see your physician for medication to help you cope with depression or PTSD symptoms.