Do other people's negative moods drag you down? Do small comments from colleagues transform into big criticisms? Then you might be a "sponge" person. "About 20 per cent of the population has a finely tuned nervous system and is highly sensitive to other people's emotions," says Ted Zeff, author of The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide (New Harbinger, $30.95). Here's how to teflon-coat a touchy mental state...
Not only do sponge personality types often over-analyse (which can increase stress levels), but they also tend to obsessively discuss their problems with friends. However - contrary to the adage that a problem shared is a problem halved - this can make problems even worse. For example, a recent US study* found that when young girls over-shared a problem with others, their anxiety levels increased. Researchers said dwelling on problems "probably made them feel sad and more hopeless" because it kept negative thoughts at the forefront of their minds.
Pre-empt pessimistic thoughts
"Most people are vulnerable in areas that touch upon how they define themselves," says Sydney clinical psychologist Grant Brecht. "That means if your self-esteem is tied up with your career, then an offhand comment from a coworker can be devastating." Steel yourself by first identifying your weak spots - from career to appearance - and then protect them by listing five reasons to be proud of yourself in those areas. Keep the list close to hand. "Something in black and white is useful because when we get emotional, we lose our ability to think rationally," adds Brecht.
Find yourself inwardly seething after a colleague's careless comment? Then distract yourself by reading the news online or tidying your desk. Just make sure you do it for longer than 10 minutes - that's the minimum time needed to break a cycle of thought, according to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, author of Women Who Think Too Much (Piatkus Books, $27.99).
The average person has between 12,000 and 50,000 thoughts per day**, with some researchers estimating that at least half of these are negative^. However, for a sponge personality, this figure could be higher. To stop these thoughts from taking over, pencil in a period - say, 30 minutes each evening - to deal with them. By the time the half-hour arrives, you'll have more perspective to judge their importance.
- Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia, July 2007. **The US National Science Foundation.