What do you do when someone dumps their stress all over you? 

I talked with several people about the stress dumping and the challenges of serving employees who are transferring to a new town, and sometimes a new country, for a job as I prepared for a program for the joint meeting of the CRC – Corporate Relocation Council of Chicago and Wierc – Wisconsin Employee Relocation Council. Moving is one of the most stressful times in life, often because something is bound to go wrong. Taking a call from a client who is angry about the moving van that hasn’t arrived is likely to cause stress for the recipient of the call. 

Maybe you haven’t experienced stress dumping as a call from an upset client, but from an anxious college student or a friend on edge instead. No matter the source of the call, the result is the same – your stress increases. There is a good reason for that.

Stress is contagious.  

There are a couple of explanations for this second-hand stress reaction. First, chemicals released in one stressed body alert the rest of the group to danger, a response that comes in handy if we all need to escape a burning building but not when it leads to collective burnout or a tense marriage. This second-hand nature of the stress reaction is one reason that stress is known as the “new smoking.” Second, mirroring the other person’s emotions is part of empathy. In an article entitled, I Feel Your Pain: Mirror Neurons and Empathy, researchers discuss how “Empathizing with another person’s pain activates areas in our own brain that typically get turned on while we ourselves experience pain.” They conclude mirror neurons elicit the same emotions in your body, triggering a stress reaction.

You can short-circuit contagious stress.

Noticing someone dumping their stress on you and working to change your reaction to it may short-circuit the second-hand effect. One of the things I said to myself regularly when working with a difficult co-worker was, “Dakota (not the real name) didn’t wake up this morning thinking of ways to make me miserable.” I could not change Dakota’s negative language or how everything seemed to be a crisis, but I could change how I reacted to it. I began responding only to the substance of our communication (the task that needed to be done, for example) and not the tone. It wasn’t ideal, but it decreased my stress. 

Over the years, I’ve developed strategies to cope with stress dumping. We start by noticing what is happening and then intentionally frame the interaction and deal with our own reaction to the incident.

Three steps to deal with stress dumping:

1. Notice The Signs of Stress Dumping:

  • Pay attention to what you see and hear coming from the other person. Are they expressing themselves with big emotions – anger, sadness, or anxiety? Does their tone sound conversational or confrontational?
  • What is happening in your body? Is your heart racing? Are you feeling shaky or cold? Your body and brain sense a rise in cortisol in others and will increase the stress hormone in yours too. That rise can create physical symptoms.
  • What are you feeling? A rise in cortisol can trigger emotional symptoms, too, including anxiety, fear, anger, withdrawal, and others.
  • Recognize that: 
    • Other people may have different (often more negative) reactions to the same stressor. You may not find a project overwhelming, but your co-worker may. 
    • Other people have different needs for stress recovery. Some people need solitary time; others need to be around people. Is the person spreading stress because they’re not getting what they need to disengage from stress?

2. Frame The Interaction:

  • Putting the interaction in context makes a difference. Some people may just need to talk about what is causing them stress, even though it sounds like they are asking for your help. 
    • Start with validation. Even if the person’s reaction seems over the top, validate what they are expressing to you. Begin by letting them know you hear what they are saying and that their response is reasonable. A phrase such as, “That’s a lot to deal with. I understand why you’d be upset,” defuses the situation and puts you on their side
    • Frame your role by asking, “Do you need my advice about what to do or do you need to vent?” This question can set expectations for your reaction to the interaction and limit your emotional response. This is especially important in parenting teenagers! 
    • Ask permission before launching into “problem-solving mode.” I find the phrase, “I have a few suggestions if you are open to hearing them,” extremely helpful.
      • One note: I’m not advocating against drawing boundaries for yourself or accepting behavior that causes you anxiety or makes you feel unsafe. If the person needs to vent, it is okay to tell them you are over-capacity for stress or focused on getting something done at the moment, and you’d be happy to talk at a different time. They are asking for your time, energy, and attention. If it isn’t an appropriate moment for you to give these things, say so. 

3. Wipe off the stress, don’t pass it along:

Once stress is dumped on you, the easy thing would be to turn around and dump it on someone else. Take steps to lower your cortisol level and wipe away the stress instead. There are three steps to this process as well.

First, lower the pressure of the stress dumping incident by asking yourself three questions to reduce stress caused by other people’s behavior:

  • What if this is the best they can do? Whew, this is a tough one!! I can sit in my arrogance of rightness and truly believe my way is the right way. This belief causes intense judgment and usually a healthy (or quite unhealthy) dose of anger. But what if you take a breath and consider that maybe this is the best decision they can make right now? Even if it doesn’t seem right to you, can you let go of your rightness and give them a bit of space and grace?
  • What if there is something I don’t understand? We all bring different life experiences, beliefs, world views, and family histories to any situation. What if there is something about their experience that doesn’t fit your view of the world?
  • What if it isn’t about me? Other people’s choices and behavior can feel very personal. It can feel like they are consciously hurting you – or even choosing not to consider your feelings or well-being. But what if you aren’t even part of their consideration? The burden of hard feelings can chill relationships. Unfortunately, family rifts often emerge when one person feels alienated by behavior that has nothing to do with how the other feels about them. We all make choices for ourselves – and truthfully, we don’t spend much time thinking about how it will impact each person in our lives. Maybe, just maybe – we should give each other the grace of believing our decisions are not meant to be hurtful, unkind, or selfish.

Take a breath – ask yourself some questions, and don’t allow the stress of things you can’t avoid to impact your health or quality of life. Here is a video about the three questions:

Next, take a moment to disconnect from the source of stress. While stress is contagious, so is laughter and calm. Think about it. Aren’t there some people who always make you feel better just by being around them? 

A short amount of time spent with calm, encouraging people effectively limits the impact of second-hand stress. Eating lunch with someone who lightens the mood is a great strategy. In a pinch, there are always funny videos to reset your stress levels. Try searching for “cats don’t like things.” The point is to find a way to disconnect from the source of stress. You can find a quiz to find out what activities may be most effective for you to disconnect in this post: Discover Your Stress Recovery Personality: Are you an IGUANA or a BORDER COLLIE?

Finally, take steps to help your body do what it is designed to do— get rid of cortisol! Activities that direct your body to reduce cortisol and help process it out of your system offset the physical impact of your stress. 

Ordinary activities, such as standing up and taking a quick walk once per hour, can significantly lower your cortisol level. This activity is good for your heart and has added benefits such as increased attention and better blood flow to the brain, supporting creativity and critical thought. You can find more tips to lower cortisol, reduce stress, and improve quality of life in Stress-Proof Your Life.

Use these steps to short-circuit the second-hand stress of stress dumping!

As always, I wish you low stress and great success.


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