How to Thrive in a World of Stressed Out People

Mark ReaganStress Management1 Comment

What to do when everyone else is stressed

My girlfriend’s tense. I’m in a hurry, and I’ve come into her home office to talk a moment before I head out.

Her tone of voice changes, and I can feel her withdraw.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“When you get into a rush it stresses me out.”

If I get into a hurry, it’s usually because I feel like I’m going to be late. As a kid, the adults in my life were always running behind. Whether it was picking me up from school, or going to a movie, we were rarely on time.

It doesn’t matter why they were late, but the effect it had on me is that I hate being late so my natural tendency is to get to things early. Sometimes much, much, too early.

I’ve gotten a little better with it, but I still get stressed if I’m feeling a time crunch to get somewhere. Like I did with my girlfriend, this stress can easily spread to others.

We’re All Mirrors

In our brains, we have these awesome things called mirror neurons.

Many of us were taught the “5 senses” in school. Sight, hearing, touch… well, “The 5 Senses” is outdated, because we have even more.

Our eyes let us see objects, our ears let us hear sounds, so how about emotions?

We perceive our own emotions by feeling. But how do we know what other people are feeling?

We might see their face crease in anger, their voice might become louder or shaky. But those are the effect of the feeling, and not the feeling itself.

But we can feel what someone else is going through. If we’re with someone who’s excited, it’s easy to get excited with them. If they’re sad, we might feel like they’re a downer. If they’re happy, we might enjoy the “good vibes” we get from them. For example, you’ve probably been at a concert or sporting event where the entire crowd gets pumped up and you can practically taste the energy going through the room.

It’s our mirror neurons picking up on the emotions of others around us and making us feel the same thing. That’s how we can feel what someone else is feeling.

Is Your Stress Actually Yours?

If you’re feeling stressed out or anxious and you’re not sure why, it’s a good time to ask yourself this.

If you’re often stressed out at work, look at your coworkers. Is there someone who’s particularly stressed out?

Our emotions are easily shared with others in what’s called emotional contagion. It’s natural and happens constantly.

If you head into work whether it’s an office, hospital, or store, emotions can spread very easily. It often only takes one person to show up in a bad mood, and soon the entire office is in a bad mood, too.

Fortunately, it goes both ways. We’ve all met someone who’s good mood is contagious and can bring up an entire group.

It might not seem like it at first, but it’s a good thing! It’s how you can tune into what other people are going through. At the same time though, it’s good to be aware of where a particular emotion is coming from.

If you’re feeling stressed, or angry, or frustrated, ask yourself if it’s starting with you, or if it’s coming from someone else.

You can’t stop yourself from feeling (and you really shouldn’t try, as that can have bad effects on you, like job burnout), but we can choose our response to the emotion.

For myself, if I realize the feeling is coming from someone else, it’s a lot easier to let the emotion run its course and let it clear on out. Otherwise, it can be easy to get sucked into it.

What Emotions Do You Want to Spread?

What kind of emotions do you want to put out there?

Your mood can easily spread to others. If you show up to work stressed out and angry, there’s a good chance others are going to start feeling the same way.

What I don’t want you to do is suppress your emotions unless they’re “good” ones. That’s inauthentic and doesn’t help anyone. I also don’t want you to exile the people who are having a bad day from the office. (Telling people they have to be positive and that there’s “no negativity” allowed can be disastrous).

What I do want you to do is ask yourself what kind of effect you want to have on others.

If you’re about to…

  • Give a presentation
  • Have a job interview
  • Talk to someone you think is is cute for the first time

Your emotional state can affect what they think of you.

If you head into a job interview and you’re nervous, you can unconsciously make the interviewer feel nervous. And if they feel nervous while interviewing you, chances are you’re not going to get the job.

Likewise, if you give a presentation and feel confident, it helps the audience feel confident. After giving a short speech recently, a person told me afterward “I can relax into your confidence.” That felt great to hear, but it illustrates the point that being confident puts your audience at ease.

(If you want to learn more about how to overcome performance anxiety, here’s a post on it)

What to Do When Everyone Else is Stressed

If you’re heading into work in a bad mood, it’s ok. It’s easy to get stressed out just from the morning commute! Take a few minutes before heading in to change around your mood, maybe through taking a quick walk around the block to clear your head, remembering a time recently when you were happy or feeling very confident, or thinking of your loved ones.

If other people at work are stressed out and it’s affecting you, you can do the same thing if you feel you need to get away from it for a bit. But there’s something better than running away: you can help them turn around their mood. If you notice you’re feeling stressed out and it’s coming from someone else, what can you do to help them? 

If they’re overwhelmed, they might need some extra support. Maybe even just encouraging words will be enough, or you can get them a cup of coffee to help cheer them up. One of the best ways to work with stress is to connect with others, so don’t run away if a coworker or employee is stressed: take a few minutes to talk with them, and see how you can help. 

Our stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But look at the effect you want to have on others. If you want others to feel calm and confident, it’s important for you to feel that way first.

Likewise, if you don’t want people to feel stressed out being around you, look into ways to make your stress work for you (like in the course I offer in the sidebar wink wink).

It’s your choice… but don’t leave how others feel toward you up to chance.

One Comment on “How to Thrive in a World of Stressed Out People”

  1. Hi Mark
    What a great post, thank you!

    Although I’m aware of the concept, I’d not heard the term ’emotional contagion’ before, and found that interesting. I totally resonate with how our emotional state can influence the people around us, and vice versa. When we go to work thinking we’re going to have a bad day, we’ll find evidence of that everywhere. The more information like this is shared, the more people can begin to notice what they’re spreading!

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