Anyone who has lived with a depressed or anxious partner knows that such emotions are contagious. And this is now backed by hard science. According to a recent study, conducted by the German Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, even the sight of a friend in distress is enough to produce a physiological reaction. Repeated exposure to such pain triggers the release of cortisol which, in high doses, upsets the hormone balance, impairs sleep quality, and leads to weight gain.
But why does this happen? In a sense, you are a victim of your own empathy. You have evolved to empathise, or tune into, other people’s emotional states, and once you have tuned in, to then mimic or imitate those emotional states. Surprisingly, human beings are not alone in this. The old joke about dogs coming to resemble their masters may be truer than people realise. Evidence suggests that a dog owned by someone in the grips of depression will itself be affected.
Take a moment to consider the people closest to you. List everyone you see more than once a week and put a cross by those you’d consider anxious or depressed. How many of them talk relentlessly about frightening, depressing subjects? How many of them seem forever agitated and worried? Most importantly, consider how you feel after spending time with them. Do you leave their apartment feeling worse? Did you notice your anxiety levels drop and your mood lift when they went away for a few weeks?
Once you have identified the individuals who affect you, you must decide what to do. Of course, it is not always possible to simply cut them from your life. For a start, there is the moral question. Those who cause us second hand stress often do so because they are themselves frightened and damaged. But you must consider yourself. If you are vulnerable to second hand stress, that is probably because you already suffer anxiety and depression. You alone know the situation.
If you cannot completely remove such people from your life, you could at least try the following:
Never underestimate the danger of second hand stress. And more importantly, never underestimate how vulnerable you are to it. People often imagine themselves to be somehow immune. But you are no more immune from someone’s low mood than you are from their nasty cold.