Beating Second Hand Stress as a Lawyer – 5 Ways You Can Protect Yourself and Avoid Becoming a Stress Sponge


Since the Pandemic is over, the only thing you have to worry about catching at work is someone’s cold. Right? Wrong!
In fact, a recent study revealed that 70% of people experience ‘contagious anxiety’ at work, catching stress from their colleagues like a bad case of flu. Lawyers, these 5 tips will help you avoid becoming a stress sponge! This hidden phenomenon of ‘borrowed’ or ‘second hand’ stress can leave us feeling tense and drained, even when everything seems ok, and it affects us more than we realize.

Do you often feel tense and worrying when things are fine?

Imagine this.

You walk into the office in the morning and you look around at your colleagues. They don’t seem happy and the tension is palpable. Before you’ve even put your bag down you know that something is amiss. There’s a tangible cloud of negativity so oppressive you can almost touch it.

You weren’t stressed before you got to the office, in fact you were feeling positive about the day ahead but immediately you feel a familiar dread in the pit of your stomach.

Or later in the day you’re knee-deep in a complex matter, fully focused, concentrating, when a colleague bursts into your office, red faced and frazzled from a tense argument they’ve just had with the lawyers on the other side and they want to tell you all about it.

You feel your shoulders tense and your heart starts to pound.

Why are lawyers so vulnerable?

As a lawyer, you’re no stranger to high pressure situations and heavy workloads, tight deadlines, complex cases and demanding clients.

It’s not exactly ‘zen’, but it’s manageable.

But as you witness colleagues’ anxieties, partner meltdowns and the constant undercurrent of pressure, their stress starts to bleed beyond your own workload and you’ve got a recipe for ‘emotional absorption’.

You actually feel the stress of those around you, internalizing it so it quickly overwhelms you.

Can’t We Just Switch Off and Ignore Other People’s Stress?

Sorry, no.

While it might seem like we can simply ignore other people’s stress, research has shown that our brains are wired for empathy, making us susceptible to picking up on the emotions of those around us.

Those empathy circuits allow us to understand and share the feelings of others – when we see someone who is suffering, it’s natural to want to help, and this can sometimes lead to us taking on their stress as our own.

Mirror neurons, special cells in the brain also activate when we observe others performing actions or experiencing emotions, good or bad. These are the same cells that make us yawn when someone else yawns, for example.

So, when we see someone who is stressed, our mirror neurons fire, our cortisol levels rise and we start to feel stressed.

Research from University of California, Riverside found that 26% of people showed elevated cortisol levels just by observing someone who is stressed.

Open plan office environments contribute to second hand stress but it’s not just co-workers, family or strangers can also have a negative impact. Even fictional movie characters can trigger a stress response in us!

The Cost of Ignoring Second Hand Stress

Second hand stress isn’t just about feeling overwhelmed.

This gnawing anxiety you’re experiencing manifests in decreased productivity, impaired problem-solving, impacting your decision-making, judgement and ability to advocate effectively, not to mention detrimental physical health issues.

And you know there’s absolutely no reason why you should feel like this.

Now, isn’t that enough to motivate a change to protect yourself from becoming a stress sponge?

What Can We Do About It?

Here’s the good news.

While second hand stress is potent, and it may not always be possible to avoid it 100%, you’re not completely powerless, there are a few research-back techniques you can apply to minimize its impact.

Think of it like building your emotional immune system. An empowering and supercharged vitamin C shot in the arm!

Try these 5 strategies to avoid becoming a stress sponge.

1. Be Aware of Your Surroundings:

Pay attention to everything around you and recognize the impact of other people’s stress on you. Observe your physical and emotional responses when you’re exposed to negativity: Do you start clenching your jaw? Feel waves of anxiety washing over you?

Notice these red flags and if you start to feel overwhelmed by someone else’s stress, take a step back and give yourself some space.

2. Create Emotional Boundaries – Your Invisible Force Field:

You can’t control other people’s stress, but you can control how you react to it.

It’s important to set boundaries with others, especially if you’re easily affected by your emotions. Let people know you’re there for them, but that you also need to take care of yourself.

It doesn’t mean you’re aloof or unfeeling. It’s about offering empathy without absorbing the burden.

3. Prime Your Day with Positivity

Mindfulness techniques like meditation, affirmations, gratitude exercises and deep breathing anchor you in the present moment, inoculating you against emotional contagion.

You can even do this at your desk.

Start with five minutes a day, focusing on your breathing and letting go of external noise. It’s like hitting the reset button for your emotional state, and creates a warm, protective cocoon around you.

4. Fuel Your Wellbeing

Stress depletes your mental and physical reserves.

Replenish them with healthy habits like regular exercise, nutritious meals, and sufficient sleep. These foundational practices create a resilient state, making you less susceptible to first- and second hand stress.

When you’re feeling good about yourself, you’ll be better equipped to handle both yours and others’ stress.

5. Be the Change you Seek

Know that you can’t control others, but your positivity can influence the office environment.

Be a beacon of calm, practice active, empathetic listening with colleagues, offer support, but don’t get sucked into the drama and the stress.

Remember positive energy is contagious too!

Remember, You’re Not Alone …
Contact Us for a Complimentary Consultation

Overcoming second-hand stress is a journey, not a destination. There will be setbacks, but each step forward empowers you to reclaim your emotional wellbeing, deepen your resilience and thrive in your demanding career.

Imagine a world where you walk into the office, not bracing for impact, but radiating calm confidence!

Ready to dive deeper?   Contact us to schedule a complimentary consultation!

Together, we can identify your unique struggles, build your stress resilience, and help you rediscover the joy and purpose in your legal career.

P.S. Share this article with your fellow lawyers! Let’s start a conversation about how to avoid becoming a stress sponge.