Surprisingly, Dimitroff is adamant that absorbing others’ stress can be a good thing. Come again? “It’s the foundation for empathy, and without emotional contagion, it would be harder to understand what others are experiencing,” she emphasizes. Still, Dimitroff makes the distinction between acute stress—those temporary bummers such as getting caught in traffic or failing a test—and chronic, long-term stress, which can last for months and have detrimental health effects. Regardless of the type of stress, she says, “There is no magic cure, unfortunately, but there are some techniques that have shown benefits.” Starting with this one: Reframe the situation. “Recognize that stress is not a failing, it’s there for an evolutionary reason,” Dimitroff says. “And if you’re prone to stress contagion, you’re likely to catch all emotions from others—including happiness.”
Here, more research-backed strategies for not being immune to secondhand stress but learning to cope with it, so you can rebound and stop the spread to those in your circle.
Take a Mental Step Back
Brain changes can be detected almost instantly when the body is exposed to stress, and depending on the context, the effects can “last minutes to days if you’re continually exposed,” says Buchanan. When you can’t remove the stressor (hi, kids and partners), “try a cognitive behavioral therapy technique and look at the stress as a challenge to overcome rather than a threat for you personally,” says Buchanan. It’s similar to compassionate detachment—you can be kind, attentive, and respectful but draw the line at becoming emotionally invested in fixing things that are beyond your control.
Hold Space and Breathe
“I think right now we’re dealing with an unprecedented amount of stress,” says Maryam Ajayi, an L.A.–based energy healer and founder of Dive In Well. Her strategy: “When I feel anxious, I’ll ask myself if what I’m feeling is my stress or someone else’s.” That often creates a mental buffer, and from there, she relies on breathwork to calm the nervous system, particularly the box method: Inhale slowly for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, and then exhale for four counts. “Do this for four minutes,” says Ajayi, who is also launching an online breathwork membership this month.
Get Up to Calm Down
Bystander stress can change the brain in the same way as primary stress—it alters corticotropin-releasing hormone neurons, which control the release of cortisol, among other actions, says Bains. To counteract this reaction, consider exercise, which can have positive effects on the brain. Importantly, though, the activity should be enjoyable, says Bains. “Otherwise, it’s forced exercise, and that can exacerbate stress rather than minimize it.” Whether you run, spin, or dance, keep it fun rather than overly focused on metrics like miles or minutes logged.
Practice Good Emotional Hygiene
Calling or texting a friend to vent can feel good in the moment, but it also passes your stress onto the receiver. Instead, Ajayi prefers journaling as a healthy form of release. “I do a couple pages every morning—it doesn’t have to be poetic, just free-flowing streams of consciousness. Let all your emotions come up.” Then close the book and move on for the day. Also helpful: Jot down a few things you’re grateful for, to shift your perspective. “It’s grounding in these stressful times,” says Ajayi.
Boost Your Emotional Immune System
We can’t remain calm in the face of tension if we’re already burned out, says Ajayi. When you tend to your needs first, you’ll be more resilient and less likely to react to others’ stress triggers. Do whatever self-care is soothing for you: Ajayi swears by simple but effective walks outside to clear her head and nightly baths: “I love filling the tub with Epsom salts, essential oils, and flowers. The ritual fills me up with strength and takes away the things that no longer serve me.”
Sit With the Bad Feelings
Sometimes you just have to ride out difficult emotions, says Santos, who recommends a coping technique from psychologist and meditation expert Tara Brach called RAIN: Recognize what is happening; allow the experience to be there; investigate what feelings come up for you; and nurture yourself with positive solutions. (“I ask my friend to send me pictures of her cat,” offers Santos.) “Emotions are like a wave, but you can sit with it, breathe, and watch that wave go away,” she says. Consider the practice a form of meditation that you can do anywhere, anytime. “It’s mindfully and nonjudgmentally letting things be,” says Santos. “That’s good medicine.”