Is Secondhand Stress Real?

When someone near you yawns, you can’t help but yawn, too. There’s something contagious about it. As it turns out, stress is something you can catch, too.

You wake up on time and get to work with no incidents, only to find a stressed coworker sighing and slamming drawers at her desk. Later, you notice yourself similarly stressed and exhibiting the same behaviors. Coincidence? No, it’s secondhand stress.

This type of secondhand stress is actually empathetic stress. You empathize with your coworker and notice her emotions, taking them on as your own. You might also experience secondhand stress if you feel anxious about the situations of characters in a book or movie you’re invested in.

Merely observing a stressful situation can activate a measurable physical stress response. One study paired an observer with a test subject who underwent difficult arithmetic tasks to measure the effects of empathetic stress. 40 percent of those who were close to someone in the study and observed this person complete the tasks experienced increases in cortisol, which influences stress.

Emotional connection is a “facilitator” but is not necessary to catch secondhand stress. Ten percent of observers experienced empathetic stress when watching a stressed-out stranger complete these difficult tasks. When the observers watched the subject on video, 24 percent experienced an increase in cortisol.

Now pair that with the growing number of individuals with anxiety, depression and other disorders. Many are stressed enough as it is: Acute stress levels can have the effect of smoking up to five cigarettes per day, increasing your risk of heart disease by 27 percent. You can catch secondhand stress from your spouse, a stranger or a character on a TV show. So how do you tell what’s yours and what’s not? And how do you manage it?

How to Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress

When you begin to feel someone else’s stress creep into your day, use the following tips to deal with it.

1. Ask yourself: Is this mine?

Pause and breathe. Ignore the chaos around you and just focus on yourself. Sometimes, with simple awareness, you can shake off secondhand stress.

2. It’s okay to have boundaries. Use them.

You know that one friend who talks incessantly about a negative experience over and over again? It’s the same pattern, and it’s draining your soul to hear it yet again. Exercise strong boundaries for when you’ve heard enough from someone stressing you out. Take time out for yourself.

3. Practice mindfulness by taking up meditation.

Lower your personal stress by practicing meditation, which is proven to ease psychological stressors, improve sleep quality and assist greatly with relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. By having a strong sense of your center, you will be able to let the stresses of others pass right by you.

4. Leave yourself reminders of mindfulness.

Surround yourself with stress relief quotes from the masters of mindfulness — the Dalai Lama or Buddha. Add quotes from other leaders, actors, authors and philosophers you admire. Snarky quotes from your family members are perfect, too.

5. It’s probably time for a media fast.

People are constantly surrounded by technology and are picking up stress from social media, texts and negative news reports. You spend a day at work answering phone calls and emails, in meeting after meeting. You go home to binge watch “Law and Order,” watch the news and catch up with family and friends on social media. Tired just from reading that?You need a tech break state. A media fast means taking a break from technology, which you can limit to social media and television. Be brave and do a month of no social media. Go cold turkey during a weekend. Give yourself at least one hour of no technology before bed.

Release the Weight of Stress — Yours and Theirs

Managing secondhand stress is hard when you have enough stress to deal with in your life. It’s important to be present within your daily life and learn the balance between taking a break, checking in and checking out completely. Don’t zone out from life — it goes by too fast.

Focus on easing your own stressors. Half the time, you are carrying the weight of another person’s emotions and difficulties. When you’re feeling stressed, ask yourself: Is this mine? Help yourself and others to the best of your ability, and release that which is outside of your control.

Stress may be contagious, but so are other things: laughter, love, and kindness.



Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a writer and blogger living in Pittsburgh, PA. You can learn more about her by visiting her website or connect with her on Twitter

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