There are plenty of stressed-out people in this world, so it’s not a stretch to guess that there’s someone in your life that is constantly on edge, too. While you might not realize that his or her stress is rubbing off on you, it’s probably happening.
Blame it all on your brain, as your body’s operating system is designed to reflect what it sees in these types of situations. Take, for example, a Swiss study in which subjects viewed photos of people yawning. Researchers found that the subjects themselves yawned when they looked at the photos because a part of the brain’s mirror neuron system activated.
This is because our brains are designed to mimic what we see. It helps us feel empathy, it helps us learn and it helps us form relationships with others. Unfortunately, though, it’s also the reason why your stressed-out friends and family members can make you feel stressed out, too.
Now that you’re aware of what’s happening inside your brain, it’s time to make an effort to re-route your natural reaction to other people’s stress. Read on to find five tips on how to hone your own empathy in order to understand others without taking on their feelings.
1. Know When to Turn Your Brain Off
If a close friend is confiding in you, you’ll listen up, and that’s perfectly fine; however, you don’t have to take in all of the world’s stress and bad news. The first step in reducing stress caused by the world at large is to know when you’ve had enough. For example, if the evening news depresses you with its tragic stories from around the globe, turn it off. It’s OK to protect yourself from this sort of information when there’s little you can do to fix it.
2. Rewrite the Story
Of course, there are going to be stressors that you can’t avoid by simply turning off the TV. In that case, it’s your responsibility to try and reframe and rewrite the story so that your brain won’t react by flooding your system with stressed-out vibes.
For example, imagine that a colleague sends you a frantic email about a deadline. Your initial reaction would be to match his or her level of stress – those mirror neurons are extremely effective, after all. It’s your job to take a step back from the situation. Remember that a deadline is not a life-or-death moment. If you take time to recognize why someone else feels stress, you can use it to explain to yourself why you don’t have to react in the same way. Then, you’ll coolly and calmly reach that aforementioned deadline without a bead of sweat in sight.
3. Choose Who You Help
This might sound cruel, but it’s important to hear: You can’t fix everyone. Many empathetic people end up serving as a listening ear to friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors … you name it. Figure out who is most important to you and who needs your time and compassion the most. Those are the people whose stress you should help manage – no more than that.
4. Take Advantage of Me Time
As previously mentioned, people who have trouble dealing with the stress of others are often the most caring and compassionate people of all. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, of course, but your empathy might get in the way of the personal time that you crave. In order to ensure that you’re not overdoing it, set aside time to do something to clear your own head, whether it’s yoga, hiking, shopping or swimming laps. Whatever you need to relax and reset, do it: You deserve it.
5. Realize When to Let Go
How do you know when it’s not just stress and recognize that your friend is in crisis? If you’re concerned that someone in your life has a more serious problem and needs to seek professional help, it’s your responsibility to speak out. Tell them that you care about them, but that they need more help than you can give. You’re not a professional therapist and you can’t be expected to take on the serious problems of those around you. For your sake and for theirs.
How do you deal with the stress of others? Do you have any tips or strategies for helping those close to you without making their stress your own?
Author Bio: Kate Wilson is a natural living writer who loves helping others live better. For more on health and happiness, follow her on Twitter @kateowilson.