Empathy is all well and good but this is getting silly.
May 18, 2011 2:54 AM   Subscribe

How do I become less easily affected by other people's stress levels?

I allow myself to become overly stressed when people around me are stressed, and I really hate that. Whether it's personal or work-related, it would just be nice to not have to go around internalising other people's stress levels.

Yesterday I nearly barfed from tension because my colleague was having a stressy time of it at work. Not even me but a colleague!

Is there any way to change this? Particularly in terms of work when you can't always choose the people you work closely with, it would just be really nice to not freak out because the boss is also freaking out. I come from a long line of stressy people which doesn't really help.

How do you disengage from your emotional environment and just get on with stuff?
posted by Ziggy500 to Human Relations (12 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're probably just pretty empathic in general. As you can see, that's a two edged sword. Sure, you pick up on other people's stress levels, but you probably also pick up on their happiness, excitement, etc. too. Some of us aren't very easily moved by others' emotional states. We notice them, certainly, but it doesn't necessarily do anything to us.

How do you control this? Well therapy would certainly seem to be a place to start, but I think what you're really looking for is more emotional control in general. I think the real question is "How do I maintain my emotional center when other people around me are experiencing strong emotions?" It's a useful skill to have.

How does one develop that skill? I'd recommend starting in more minor situations. The next time you find yourself around someone who is obviously emoting, tell yourself that their feelings do not need to be yours. Literally tell yourself that. Out loud if you have to. Then go on to do whatever you would do if you weren't affected by their emotional state. Basically just fake it. Shakespeare was right:
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature. . .
posted by valkyryn at 3:22 AM on May 18, 2011 [12 favorites]

Try this: picture whatever scene of stress and freaking out is going on near you as some kind of theatrical performance, or a scene from a tv comedy series. Start imagining all the crazy things your "boss freaking out" would do if s/he was a character in a tv comedy. If have a specific show in mind that you enjoy, even better.

You're the script writer. In your mind, the characters are doing whatever you want them to do. You want them to do something stupid with their stress and anxiety so that you can laugh about it (in your mind, of course, you dont wanna to do this right to your boss's face).

The moment you see what's happening around you as sort of fiction, comedy, theatre, then it will have a lot less of an influence on you, and, it may even become fun to witness.

Variations of this trick: imagine you are a writer and the stressed out people freaking out at work are inspiration for some satirical novel you're going to write. Or you're a journalist with a column on some fancy magazine. OR an anthropologist exploring the habits of the "stressed office worker" tribe. A scientist studying the behaviour of humans in stressful environments...

Whatever sounds more appealing to you, the key is creating a mental/psychological distance, tricking your mind into thinking you are outside all of this, above all of this, and you cannot be emotionally affected because it's all fictional, or something you are observing, not participating in.

(This is more or less loosely inspired by the kind of tricks from cognitive-behavioural therapy, but I also remember reading sometime ago about the tricks actors and performers and public speakers use when they have to appear in public at important events, to lower the anxiety, something like that).
posted by bitteschoen at 4:41 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness meditation might be helpful.
posted by callmejay at 5:10 AM on May 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Are you a natural fixer? IE when someone is stressed out do you feel a responsibility to take action to make things better?
posted by DarlingBri at 5:31 AM on May 18, 2011

What are the consequences for you personally, that you expect to result from other people's stress levels? Will the company for which you work finally collapse as a result of stressed-out employees becoming unable to do their jobs? I actually feel that this is a possibility where I work. But I do not let this become a source of stress for me personally. If my employer goes out of business, so be it. I can survive without this particular job. I will adapt in any event. Can you take a similar attitude?
posted by grizzled at 5:54 AM on May 18, 2011

Instead of trying to tune it out, how about trying to tune into it? When you note that someone is stressed, ask what you can do to help them, or get them to talk about what's bothering them. Use your skill to identify and relieve stress in others wherever possible.

Most people will worship you for this.
posted by hermitosis at 7:04 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

It might help to first check in about whether you can help, so you can feel condident that the best thing for you to be doing is to disengage and do your own work.

Focus on your own feelings about all of this. It will distract you from theirs. Tune in to the rising stress and to how much better you feel when you ignore their feelings. Then, get some space if you need it, because what you describe is pretty natural. It's fairly hard to change yourself to the point of not noticing. It's feasible to change yourself to the point of not thinking you ought to be tuning in or reacting, of not wanting to be tuning in and reacting, and maybe even feeling annoyance that nevertheless you are tuning in and reacting. But the very easiest way not to tune in and react is to get some space. Put on your headphones. Move to another room. Work from home for the rest of the day. In the long run maybe you could even find a chill boss who keeps his/her cool except in moments when the whole team truly does need to be stressing out. Good luck!
posted by salvia at 7:43 AM on May 18, 2011

Get beige marshmallow ear plugs and cut them in half or thirds so they're less visible when they're in your ears (also that's why you want the beige ones- the colourful ones are a bit too eye-catching). Wear them whenever you're around stressballs. You'll still be able to hear perfectly, but the person's urgency will be dulled a little. My old boss had a really nervous-sounding voice that made me anxious- I found the distancing effect of half-an-earplug really took the edge off.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:17 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Boundaries! In therapy I realized that I was anxious for others because I was used to trying to protect my parents, that I had some kind of loopy idea that if I suffered it might somehow alleviate their pain (fyi: it doesn't!). Now it helps me to remember that those other people are adults and will find a way through this to better times. I can feel empathy for them, and still draw good boundaries between us.

Three things I do in the moment that might help: 1) focus on some problem in my own life that I can readily work on (get things done, accomplish something, problem-solve, plan); 2) think about people I love and how much I love them, moments when I've loved them most; and 3) realize I'm imagining myself in the same situation and catastrophizing it, but that I would survive if I were stressed by those same events.
posted by ldthomps at 11:06 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, this is familiar. I can get along at work okay (it can be stressful but my coworkers are fairly calm in a crunch), but at home I am super sensitive to the mood of my roommate (and former live in SOs). I can tell if he's had a good day or a bad day by hearing how he comes in and takes off his jacket. If he's worked up about something I want to FIX IT because his agitation/gloom is like a tack in my brain, even if he is not in the same room. This impacts my home projects because I will stop my work to do something to sort him out. Once I realized what I was doing, it became easier to short circuit that impulse and not let his mood influence mine. Sounds like you are in that place.

You might try listening to some guided meditation during lunch or a break. This one, for example, has some short (10-15 minute) sessions that can help re-center your mood. I also like going outside for a quick nature break and doing a few minutes of stretching to ground myself (or I find a private corner and stretch). There is a great shoulder stretch I learned from a massage therapist - tense up your shoulders as hard as you can and pull them up towards your ears for a few seconds, then move them back (still contracting) so you are pinching your shoulder blades together and hold that for a few seconds, then abruptly release. I curl my shoulders in when I am feeling stressed and the bad posture only amplifies the bad feelings. This is a quick posture reset, and it lifts my mood.

I also realized that when people get worked up about something to the point that their irritation/stress really spills over, they are sort of flying a "look at meeee!!" flag. They are saying, "I am so stressed! I am so busy! I am more important than you! You can't call me on my rudeness and shortcomings because I am obviously so busyyyyyyy!" They are already on the defensive for any kind of confrontation, and basically terrified of judgment. Terrified of seeming like they aren't doing everything in their power and making the best decisions. Terrified of inadequacy. They are probably very hard on themselves. (This also helps me in not projecting that attitude and calming myself when I want everything JUST SO and my plans are not working out, rarr rarrggh.) The stressed person is trying to make the situation all about them and their hard time. Knowing this, I find it a lot easier to separate myself and realize that their stress is not my stress, and also that they kind of want to be that way. And if they want to be that way, then my little bandaids aren't going to do any real good and only make me an enabler.

People have way more control over their moods and happiness/unhappiness than they realize, but I guess that's something everyone has to learn for themselves. It is very difficult to let go of the attachment to unhappiness. Until they make that decision, they will continue to fall into the rut of the stressed out and cranky, and I only exist to fill the role of blame-bearer or attention-giver. I make a decision to not play that game.
posted by griselda at 11:52 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Offer to help? Or if they don't have any concrete ways you can help, bring them something nice to cheer them up, like chocolate or flowers or a funny cartoon or whatever.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:56 PM on May 18, 2011

I'm working on this habit as well. The other day, one of my young co-workers (much younger than me, reminds me very much of me at his age, and I tend to feel protective of him) was stressed and about to have to deal with an unhappy customer. I was worrying about him and realized that I was feeling as if I were the one with the problem; suddenly, an image came to me of him and his feelings encased in his skin OVER THERE, and me and my feelings in my skin OVER HERE, totally separate from him. Now when I have these boundary issues, I remind myself, "that is HIS issue to deal with, he can handle it, and I don't have to," visualize us as totally separate people, allow myself to feel relief that it's not my problem, focus on what I'm doing, and that helps me a lot.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 2:03 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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