Think of someone in your life who makes you feel good no matter what. Everything in your life can feel like it's falling apart, yet this person knows exactly what to say to make you feel better. They exude positive energy and can help you improve your mood faster than you can say, "I'm so stressed." Now, think about people who you feel tense or stressed out around. These are the people you feel on edge with, for example, a boss who walks in the office and barks at you, a perpetually grumpy friend, or an unpredictable colleague who could explode at any moment. How do you feel? My guess is you start to feel a bit stressed and tense just thinking about them.

In the examples above, empathy is at play. When you're around your positive friend you connect and relate to him or her. When you're around the miserable boss, you're tense because you're picking up on his tension, maybe even trying to understand him, and it doesn't make you feel good. Empathy can be a wonderful thing, and it can protect us. Case in point: If someone is panicked because of a dangerous situation such as a fire, then we pick up on it, understand the situation, and we act accordingly. Empathy, though, can also be detrimental to our mental health. Repeated exposure to negativity can wear us out, exhaust us, and lead to stress-related issues such as headaches, stomachaches, and muscle aches.

Who is most at risk for catching stress?

People who can't set boundaries. These are people who involve themselves in several aspects of other peoples' lives. They have trouble saying no and they are people pleasers. They may also have rescue fantasies and want to help others, even if it means at the expense of their own needs. People pleasers in particular should learn how to recognize it and deal with it.

Are there gender differences?

Men and woman handle stress differently. Women tend to talk, confide, and seek comfort from people. Men though are usually doers and will take action. So often couples see me and a big complaint from women is that they just want their man to listen and be supportive and not offer advice as he so often does.

How to safeguard yourself from other people's stress:

  1. Put your needs first and foremost. Rather than trying to take care of everyone else, take care of yourself. Being a little bit selfish can actually be good for your mental health.
  2. Don't be a people pleaser. People pleasers often feel they are letting other people down if they say no. It's OK to say no. Doing so doesn't make you a bad person or bad friend. It merely means that you have boundaries and you're keeping your own emotional well-being in check.
  3. Manage your own stress. People who are stressed are more vulnerable to catching even more stress from others.
  4. Redirect the other person's stress. If a friend or colleague is talking to you endlessly about a problem they're having, be empathetic and then direct the conversation away from the emotional high stress. For example, if someone is complaining about a job they hate and dread, rather than letting the person continuously vent, do this: "I understand your job is difficult and you don't enjoy it. It doesn't feel good to have to go to a place where you're not happy. You have excellent skills. Have you updated your resume and considered sending it out?"
  5. Don't engage negativity. Recognize that adding to negative talking will only lead to more stress. Think back to really cold Winters you've experienced. If you're like most people, you had a conversation about the long cold winter. Did you complain about it or did you acknowledge it and look forward to spring? If the former, then you helped reinforce negativity and perpetuate stress.

Next time you encounter stress, think about it: Do you want to perpetuate it or be the antidote?