Stress sucks. It’s an omnipresent feeling that can leave us tired, lonely, and generally unpleasant. What’s worse? It doesn’t just affect the stressed person, it can also have an impact on those around us. As much as we rely on our friends and family members to support us, as we support them, we don’t want our stress to negatively affect their lives.
Stress really can be thought of as contagious, as strange as that sounds. Bill Leavitt, a Southern California-based therapist who specializes in dealing with stress, suggests thinking of it this way: “Have you ever been in a crowded supermarket or doctor’s office with a screaming child? The child is feeling maximum stress and letting the world know about it. The parent in charge of the child is definitely feeling it. So is everyone around the situation.”
Makes sense, right? A stressful environment can affect you, even if you’re not directly experiencing the stress yourself. The same is true for anyone who’s around you when you’re stressed. If you want to avoid turning your home, office, or girls’ night out into a tension-fest, consider some of the ways you might be holding onto your stress — and how you can let go.
You bring home your stress
One way your stress can affect the people around you is after a tough day at work. You leave your job and want to unload on your partner/roommate/friend/parent. However, Leavitt warns, “If one is taking home stress, it can manifest in poor treatment of others at home.” If you lash out when you feel this way (think: rage blackout) it can cause a strain on the relationship.
“There is no benefit to taking out one’s stresses on others,” he explains. “It’s damaging to relationships, and poisons the communication.”
Here’s another way to think about it. The Stress Therapist, Cheri Augustine Flake, notes that people who are always complaining about being stressed come off as self-centered.
“Thinking that things are worse for you than for others is going to alienate you in every relationship,” she says.
Instead, Flake advises her clients to never talk about how busy they are. Since we are all busy, it can come off as very condescending. (And find us a relationship that succeeds when someone is being condescending!)
You’re bonding with someone over your stress
Flake points out that talking about stress can be helpful for the person who is trying to relieve it.
“However, it is often to the detriment of the listener,” she warns. “Because the only way to vent is to get some validation that your stress is legit. In order to do this, you have to get your listener riled up or stressed out about your situation, and voila! Now she has it, and you don’t.”
Stress can also make an already strained situation even more trying. As Leavitt explains, stress in the workplace has a tendency to lead to conflict and arguments, and this can in turn make the workplace even more difficult to be in than it was before.
However, stress at work isn’t all bad. “With coworkers, one can actually develop a bond after having gone through common situational stress,” Leavitt says. It makes sense: Think of how close you can get with the person in the cubicle next to you when you’re dealing with a crazy boss who sends your stress meter off the charts.
Your coping mechanism is stressful
How your stress affects the people around you has a lot to do with how you let it manifest. For example, some people self-isolate or shut down when they’re in a stressful situation. It’s easy to come home day after day from something stressful—whether it be work, caregiving, school, anything—and hide under the covers with Netflix and a bowl of popcorn. Sometimes, in our desire to not weigh people down, we hide from them. But, Leavitt says, this can cause our relationships to suffer, since we’re not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.
Or, perhaps you do the opposite: When you’re crazy overwhelmed, you like to unwind, let loose, and go out drinking every night. Leavitt says this can have a similar negative impact on friends and family, as you spin out of control.
It’s crucial to find healthy ways to manage your stress. Leavitt suggests breathing techniques like his Four-Fold Breath, meditating, or journaling. “I also like the cognitive behavioral therapy technique of reframing a thought,” he suggests. “It’s critical especially whenever our thoughts are catastrophic or black-and-white and we need to re-characterize them.”
However, Flake says, it is important to remember that “stress is not a concrete thing that we can carry around in our pockets. How stress affects anyone depends on how they are creating stress in their lives.”
“Unless there has been some specific trauma, we create stress with our thoughts,” she explains. “We all know someone who, no matter how severe the stressor in their life, they have a tendency to roll with it. Someone else may make a hangnail seem like a lion in the room. It’s all in the way that you are thinking about it. So, as in most self-care and overall life improvement, if you want everyone around you be stress-free or unaffected by the stress in your own life, you’re going to have to figure out how to be stress-free and happy first. It all starts with you.”