April 29, 2014

Second-hand Stress and Church Living

This post originally came from the blog sponsored by the Duke University Clergy Health Initiative.

In a recent blog post, Jan Bruce, founder and CEO of meQuilibrium, introduced me to the idea of second-hand stress. A distant cousin of second-hand smoke, which we’ve long known to be hazardous to our health, second-hand stress is a recognized condition that indicates you can actually “catch” stress from other people.  Who knew that stress was contagious?

Well, YOU probably knew — pastors are among the most empathetic people out there, a trait which allows you to connect with your parishioners, coworkers, friends, and family and support them in so many ways. However, Ms. Bruce suggests that “being attuned to others’ emotions means that you’re potentially leaving yourself wide open to their frantic, messy, grousing, all-around unpleasant feelings, too.”
Humans are biologically wired to mirror each others’ emotions. Stress management expert Joe Robinson says, “Even if we’re not physically imitating what we see, mirror neurons still fire off a simulated version of the activity in your head as if you actually did it. It’s all designed to help us learn, understand, empathize, and connect with what others are doing and feeling.”

Okay, so your kid slams the door on her way in after school, throws her book bag against the wall and starts pacing back and forth in your kitchen, all the while muttering (or yelling) about the injustices of middle school, teachers, fickle friends, and life in general. You, once a teenager yourself and now a caring mother/father, notice the hair on the back of your neck prickling, your heart rate speeding up, and your palms getting sweaty.  You’ve picked up a case of stress from your daughter!

meQ recommends building “an emotional buffer zone, [which] allows you the space to feel, acknowledge, and name your reactions as they are happening.” This will protect you from the harmful effects of your own stress response and help you channel your energy into a positive reaction.
Here are meQ’s 3 tips for buffering against this second-hand stress (some will work better than others in certain situations):
  1. Trap it, Map it, Zap it: Be aware of your body and emotions. Figure out where these emotions are coming from and what thoughts are behind them. Then, decide if these thoughts are based on reality, or are they just your own interpretation of the situation?
  2. Relaxation Techniques: “The more you practice simple relaxation techniques, the faster and more powerfully they come to your aid when you need them.” Check out these quick-fix relaxation techniques from meQ.
  3. Boundaries: Know what your boundaries are and make sure to stick to them. Are there topics you need to avoid with certain people? Are there times of day that should be off-limits for serious discussions with your spouse? Here are some other examples of personal boundaries.
--Katie Huffman

About Katie Huffman

Katie is a Wellness Advocate with the Clergy Health Initiative. She has an undergraduate degree in History and French and a Masters degree in Gerontology; prior to her current position, Katie worked as a social worker in a retirement community in Chapel Hill. Outside of work, she enjoys gardening, spending time outdoors, baking, and hanging out with her husband, Noah, their daughter, Ada, and two kitties, Grady and Gracie.

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