The Ripple Effect of Stress
Stress is a frequent companion to most people—whether they’re gearing up for the start (or end) of the semester, facing problems at work, separation from family, relationships troubles, or they just had a rough time in traffic. It’s important to remember that when we’re stressed out, that stress affects more than just us. In fact, stress can cause a ripple effect to your friends, family, coworkers, and the larger community. The good news is releasing stress can cause a positive ripple effect, too. Let me explain.
My Stress Becomes Your Stress
Imagine for a minute that I’ve had a stressful day at work. Maybe I swing by one of our local coffee shops for a jolt of caffeine so I can face the traffic on the way home, but maybe because of my stress level, I’m rude to the barista. Let’s call them Chris. If I’m rude to Chris because I’m having a rough day, my interaction with them may only be for a handful of moments, but the effect is multiplied by each person it touches.
Let’s then imagine that Chris has had a rough day as well, and my comment is the one that really sends them over the edge, and their happy-seeming exterior evaporates to a scowl. Perhaps Isabel comes in to order a coffee, and Chris is rude to her. What do you imagine would happen if Isabel is headed to her shift at one of the local hair salons? She’s going to carry at least a little bit of that stress—that was mine and moved through Chris—to her clients. Can you see how one person can affect another person’s day to the extent that more and more people are affected?
Here’s the alternative. I may have had a rough day, but because I’ve worked through a variety of mindfulness exercises and I’ve shaken off my stress, I realize that my bad day isn’t Chris’ fault, so I don’t take my bad attitude out on them.
Let’s suppose everything else is the same as in the example above. Chris is still having a rough day, but maybe my being nice at the register, smiling and talking to them makes Chris’ day better. Maybe when Isabel comes in, Chris brightens a little bit because she’s having a good day and it reminds Chris that today’s not so bad. If this trend continues, Chris’ mood may lighten enough that they go home at the end of the shift feeling good. Everyone who Chris has served also gets a piece of that goodness.
For better or worse, actions can ripple out from ourselves to those around us, even people we’ve never met.
Getting A Hold of Your Stress
Being Zen about life is so much easier said than done. The problem is, you can’t just turn stress off. You have to train yourself through practice to respond to situations differently. Some people choose yoga, going to the gym, playing music, or meditation as a way to relax. For me, nothing is quite like meditation. Did you know that you can actually train your brain to respond to stress, fear, and myriad negative emotions with mindfulness and grace?
- First, take a moment to notice your breath. You can do this in the bathroom at work, walking down the street, or in your car while stopped at a red light. Simply noticing your breath will bring you back to the moment.
- Tune into how your body feels next. You might notice how the chair feels beneath you as you sit at your desk. Maybe you can imagine your feet making even more contact with the floor.
- Consciously remind yourself of all the mechanisms in place in your life that are nurturing or safe.
Take a few minutes to enjoy that peace in the moment and then start again in your day.
You might be wondering how things as simple as noticing your breath and gravity can affect you so much. The answer lies in your brain. When you focus on safety, security, and support, you’re quieting your fight-or-flight center and making it easier to move out of the “me” part of the brain and into the communal and compassionate “we” part.
When we function from what I call the “we” part of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex, we can look at others with compassion and understanding. This is the part of the brain that allows us to be creative and from whence our urges to help others and strengthen the community come. And that’s something we can all use!