In a word, yes. Each of us has a certain amount of stress resulting from our families, jobs, and life responsibilities, but some stress is passed from person to person, almost like bad germs. Not all forms of stress can be avoided, but you may be able to inoculate yourself from being infected by someone else’s stress. Here are 3 forms of contagious stress and ways to protect yourself from each.
1. The Eggshell Dropper. You know the type, the person who has everyone around them walking on eggshells. This person gets upset easily, sometimes unpredictably, and when they do, everyone around knows about it and could suddenly become the target for blame. These people have family members and friends on "high alert" in anticipation of the next stress out. Being around someone who has a high level of anxiety, hostility, depression, or any negative emotion can cause you to experience negative emotions in reaction, such as anxiety, frustration, fear, or anger. If you have a chronic eggshell dropper in your life, try to limit your contact, and especially when you start to notice their stress is brewing. If you can’t avoid the person (e.g., you live with him/her), practice communicating with them as soon as you start to notice the early signs of stress to help resolve the situation before it escalates. However, be careful to avoid catering to them when they are stressed out, it will likely reinforce their bad behavior when under stress. When they behave in a way that is unacceptable to you it is very important to calmly let them know each time (even if you need to wait until they have calmed down) that you are experiencing bad feelings when they behave this way. When giving interpersonal feedback, always begin your sentences with “I” not “you” to avoid the person from becoming defensive. “I felt very upset and anxious when you were stomping around the house and slamming doors because you lost your keys” is far better than “You acted like a child when you lost your keys and I can’t stand it anymore.”
2. Hey Is That Stress You Are Having? Can I Have Some Too? I had a patient once tell me she couldn't manage to exercise or get much of her work done this week because she got so stressed out when her neighbor’s brother died. I said, "Oh, that’s awful, did you know her brother?" she said, “No.” I said, "Oh, are you really close to your neighbor?" she said, “No, we aren't very close.” I was then puzzled as to why this event seemed to thwart her entire week. Over time I noticed that she had a strong tendency to feel other people’s stress, regardless of whether the people were even close to her. Just hearing about a death made her anxious about losing her own loved ones and sent her into bad feelings that she had a hard time turning off. People who are high in empathy and also have difficulty shutting off negative feelings may be vulnerable to this pattern. If you are often the shoulder for others to cry on, be mindful about the toll this role plays on you. You may need to back off some for your own good.
3. The “I’m The Busiest Person On Earth” Super Delegator. Sometimes people unload their stress onto others by handing off their responsibilities. Don't get me wrong, delegating is a great coping strategy but these people take it to an extreme by imposing on others far more than is reasonable. They may even delegate every task they have on their plate, leaving themselves with little to no load. If you find yourself the object of a Super Delegator, you may be allowing them to shift their stress to you. The ultimate danger is that you may be setting a bad precedent about whose work is whose. For example, imagine the coworker who frequently asks you to help them with a few tasks because they are so stressed, but then eventually it somehow becomes an expectation that you will do these tasks all the time. This also happens a lot between spouses, siblings, and even in parent/child relationships. Do you have any responsibilities that started out as a favor to someone else who was stressed out? It might be a good time to take inventory and shift any of those tasks back to their rightful owner.
Although it is hard to communicate and renegotiate relationship expectations in the ways suggested above, there are many benefits of doing so. By cutting out a few spare stressors you will free up the time needed to invest in yourself. To take that yoga class, to meditate, take on a hobby, or to get that extra hour of sleep. The Egg Shell Droppers and Super Delegators of the world are just going to have to wait their turn...