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Social Allergies: Are You at Risk?

Strategies to help you stay calm in stressful situations with others

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Newsflash, ladies: Turns out you really can be allergic to your mother-in-law—or any other special someone in your life whose bothersome behavior gives you more heartburn than your husband's famous fireworks chili.

Recent studies show "social allergens" are on the rise, and just like their biological counterparts such as pollen or poison ivy, these allergens can cause physical and psychological symptoms that become stronger over time.

Truth is, we all have one or more potent people in our lives who grate on our nerves. They interrupt often, smack gum during Bible study, bring their colds and sniffles instead of tasty refreshments to Neighborhood Watch meetings, and frequently leave the clean-up behind. More than just pet peeves, these so-called "adverse behaviors" repeated again and again could test the patience of Job on a rainy day, a phenomenon that social psychologist and communications professor Michael Cunningham calls social allergies.

According to Cunningham, repeated exposure to social allergens can cause emotional and physical breakouts due to stress. First encounters cause a mere qualm or two, but add repetition without relief and the irritation grows exponentially. In his landmark study, Cunningham and his research partners discovered social allergens and our increased sensitivity to them often occur in the settings where we spend the most time, whether it be at home, church, or office. So how do we protect ourselves? Here is some advice from the experts.

Focus on Solutions

"Sometimes fellow workers really wore me down," says "Mary," who volunteered with her church's bustling youth ministry. "When 40 energetic children burst into the room, you have to be ready to hit the ground running. But every week when the kids arrived, the other volunteers would just continue chatting, waiting for me to start the show." Although she knew it was a small gripe against the backdrop of the greater good the volunteers were bringing into the lives of the underprivileged children, the need to repeatedly prod and cajole took its toll. "If it had happened once or twice, I would have shrugged it off, but week after week?"

Experts agree it's the little things that most often get under our skin, causing a rash decision or moment of misplaced sanity (we know we left it around here somewhere). We can inoculate ourselves in several ways. Cunningham says the most popular strategy is to simply avoid the person or persons. This works well if the person performs the behavior only part of the time. Suppose a friend is too talkative at the movies, for example. You can avoid going to see a film with that friend or make sure to bring other buddies with you as a buffer. Better yet, enjoy and appreciate other activities with her instead.

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Social Allergies: Are You at Risk?