Anxiety Really Is Contagious—These 8 Tips Will Help Keep You From Catching It
Easy ways to create an anxiety buffer zone.
Just like you can catch a cold or the flu, you can catch anxiety too, be it from a friend venting about her job troubles or watching a TV interview with survivors of a natural disaster. Given how the human brain is wired, “it’s all too easy for us to 'catch' emotions,” Carla Marie Manly PhD, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California, tells Health.
“Mirror neurons” may play a part in our tendency to soak up anxiety from external sources. These specialized brain cells fire up not only when we perform an action, but when we witness it happening to someone else. “Stress contagion—the tendency to absorb others’ stress, anxiety, and tension--is a form of this human propensity,” Manly says. The more empathetic you are, the more susceptible you may be.
Still, this doesn’t mean you're helpless when someone else's anxiety starts to seep into you. These 8 strategies will act as a buffer.
Make a positive pivot
Let’s say your friends are venting about politics (again) and all you wish is to enjoy your dinner out, not worry about the next election. Validate their point and angle the conversation in a more positive direction, Jennifer L. Taitz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, tells Health. Try this: “Ugh, this is a tough time…. Can we each share one thing that we’re actually grateful for?” “Topics do set the tone and you can have some say,” says Taitz.
Label your emotions
Giving a name to your emotions as you notice them “is a powerful way to regulate your feelings, rather than feel consumed by them,” Taitz says. “I’m feeling anxious because Maggie’s stressed about her job and I’m empathic because my job security also seems shaky," for example, helps you get control over anxiety by confronting what's making you feel anxious and identifying why.
Mentally remove yourself from the situation
“Imagine yourself detaching and ‘floating above’ the situation as though you’re a researcher or photographer,” Manly suggests. As you do, release any judgment. “It also helps to breathe deeply, as full and focused breathing supports the calming action of your parasympathetic nervous system,” she says. This strategy can help you recognize that you don’t need to be involved in the stress of others; you can distance yourself, emotionally and mentally.
When anxiety starts bubbling up inside you, ask yourself: “Can I do anything about this issue?” If the answer is no, then exhale deeply and visualize letting it go. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, “take some sort of action,” Manly suggests. Let's say the more news you read, the more anxious you get. Even a small step—like turning off news alerts on your phone or limiting your time on Facebook—is a small, positive move toward changing the situation. “Your body and mind will register that something is being done,” Manly says.
Deflect their anxiety
When a friend’s having a tough time, of course you want to help her through it. But rather than assume it’s best to sit and chat for hours ruminating over her situation, “plan an activity first,” advises Taitz. Cook dinner together or go to a spin class. That way, “you can catch up once you’re both feeling less depleted,” she explains. “Co-ruminating isn’t great for either mood or closeness.”
Reframe anxiety as a good thing
“Research shows that those who view stress as a helpful, energizing force feel better emotionally and physically,” says Scott Crabtree, chief happiness officer of HappyBrainScience.com, which teaches stress management to employees of companies like DreamWorks and Nike. When you feel yourself getting worked up, your reaction may be, Uh oh, this is bad. Instead, reframe your anxiety. Tell yourself you’re psyching yourself up to make something positive happen.
Make meditation a daily routine
Quieting your mind “boosts your emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, and ability to accept without judgment,” Crabtree says. “Mindful people are less susceptible to the stress of others.” First thing in the morning or right before bed are prime times to squeeze in a meditation session. “Do whatever you can,” notes Crabtree. “One minute of meditation is infinitely more effective than zero. It's more about practicing—and reminding yourself and your body to relax—than it is to meditate for a long time.”
Move your muscles
Think of how you feel physically when you’re stressed: Your heart beats harder and faster, your breathing becomes shallow, your palms sweat, your body switches into fight or flight mode. You might as well follow through on that adrenaline surge and do something active requiring serious fuel. “It doesn't have to be a marathon or even a real workout,” Crabtree says. “Any physical activity helps your body use that stress energy.”