Resilient Leadership: 5 Ways to Inoculate Yourself Against Spreading Stress


“May you live in interesting times” is a quote that has never felt more relevant than right now. While some people feel more peaceful and settled as the frenetic pace of their movement is slowed, others report that they stress as never before.

It is possible to inoculate ourselves against the impact of stress. In a 2015 Harvard Business School article, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan describe how emotions are contagious. So, when we don’t get a handle on our own emotions, that stress spills out to everyone around us. It may surprise you just how much!

The authors write: “Emotions spread via a wireless network of mirror neurons, which are tiny parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others and understand what they’re feeling. When you see someone yawn, mirror neurons can activate, making you yawn, in turn. Your brain picks up the fatigue response of someone sitting on the other side of the room. But it’s not just smiles and yawns that spread. We can pick up negativity, stress, and uncertainty like secondhand smoke. Researchers Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio from the University of California, Riverside found that if someone in your visual field is anxious and highly expressive — either verbally or non-verbally — there’s a high likelihood you’ll experience those emotions as well, negatively impacting your brain’s performance.

Observing someone who is stressed — especially a coworker or family member — can have an immediate effect upon our own nervous systems. A separate group of researchers found that 26% of people showed elevated levels of cortisol just by observing someone who was stressed. Secondhand stress is much more contagious from a romantic partner (40%) than a stranger, but when observers watched a stressful event on video with strangers, 24% still showed a stress response

In fact, you don’t have to see or hear someone to pick up their stress; you can also smell them. New research shows that stress causes people to sweat special stress hormones, which are picked up by the olfactory senses of others. Your brain can even detect whether the “alarm pheromones” were released due to low stress or high stress. Negativity and stress can literally waft into your cubicle.”

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

What can you do to stop the spread of stress to others?

  1. Create positive antibodies that lead to short-circuit a negative encounter. Try to start your phone calls not with “I’m swamped” or “I’m so busy.” Instead, start with a breath and calmly say: “It’s great to talk to you.”
  2. Build natural immunity: Focus on your self-esteem. Remind yourself you’ve got this and you can handle what comes your way.  
  3. Inoculate yourself
  • Gratitude – Write down 3 things each day
  • Acknowledge – 2 minutes email praising someone you know
  • Journal – 2 minutes about a positive experience
  • Exercise – 30 minutes most days
  • Meditation – 2 minutes and work up from there

Over the past few weeks, I’ve hosted a few Webinars on the topic of Leadership Resilience. (To view, click here: )

To learn more about how you can develop this and other important leadership skills you might not yet know, I hope you’ll check out my new book, “Inner Switch:  7 Timeless Principles to Transform Modern Leadership.”  You can purchase it from your favorite online retailer at

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