It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“Most people worry from time to time. A new research study…shows that worrying can be so intrusive and obsessive that it interferes in the person’s life and endangers the health of social relationships.” (“Worrying Can Impact Interpersonal Relationships, Study Finds,” Science Daily 7/26/2011)
I can attest to this firsthand. I have a friend who once seemed to enjoy worrying. She was one of those people who, if she didn’t have something to fret over, felt she wasn’t being productive. (Despite people saying they just want to live stress-free, I’ve found that plenty actually find relaxation boring. If they aren’t worrying, they feel unproductive. I am no such gal.)
This friend’s inability to calm down would have been fine–not my problem, right?–except it wasn’t fine at all. It was my problem. Her stress was contagious. Whenever we hung out, her anxiety rubbed off on me. In a matter of minutes I’d go from totally zen to teetering on the edge.
(And these weren’t legit, big time worries. I’m talking every day stress. We’ve all been there.)
There’s plenty of research to support the idea that we adopt the emotions of those around us. And while there seem to be defense mechanisms (“those who are [emotionally spongy] can learn to protect themselves from inadvertently taking in other people’s stress,” writes Martha Beck in O Magazine) learning them takes work, and practice. All the stuff we don’t necessarily want to focus on when we’re off the clock.
Instead of doing the work, people often choose to cut ties. My friend and I grew apart a bit in the wake of her non-stop worrying. We never spoke of her stressful demeanor, and how susceptible I was to it, and I’m sure she attributed our fade-out to something entirely different. Now that we live in separate cities all is well, but her worries most definitely endangered our social relationship.
Stress contagion isn’t the only way worrying can threaten a relationship. The act of worrying itself manifests in different ways. Your worrywart friend might express her concern by calling every five minutes on the night you offer to babysit. Another anxious bestie might talk about the stress that plagues her nonstop, bring a real Debbie Downer vibe to your girl-dates. Either way: endangering the relationship. Big time.
My worrying friend has calmed down in her old age. And I’ve loosened up a bit, too. I try not to get so affected by other people’s moods. The key word being “try.” I’m a work in progress.
I can’t say I was surprised to read today’s research. Friends should help you forget your worries, not trigger them. Who needs it?
Have you ever experienced this stress contagion? Has a friend’s worrying tendencies ever endangered your relationship? Have you ever been the worrying culprit?