By Janet Kim, MPH
Rushing around the office or at the shopping mall, tapping a pen on a table, finishing other people’s sentences, sighing repeatedly, slamming down the phone… people behave like this when they’re stressed. What’s worse is that this kind of stress is contagious — you can get so-called secondhand stress just being around people who are tightly wound.
“‘Secondhand stress’ is a stress response that is triggered by someone else’s behavior,” explained Jordan Friedman, MPH, stress management speaker, author and founder of.
We may be seeing the other person’s behavior as a threat to our environment, said Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., a fellow with the American Institute of Stress and author of the upcoming book Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress. “When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we, too, should be worried,” she explained.
Behavior that begets secondhand stress, however, may not necessarily be inherently stressful.
“If I was on the phone with someone and I was having a conversation that was high volume but that wasn’t necessarily a confrontational phone conversation, it still could produce a stress response in those who are sitting around me,” Friedman said, adding that, “Secondhand stress can be produced by our interpretations of other people’s behaviors.”
The Family Stress Trap
Families are certainly not immune to secondhand stress. Parents get overwhelmed by how much they have to do and transmit stress to their kids and partners.
“Stress fuels forgetfulness,” noted Friedman, and parents “fly out of the house without remembering to ask [their spouse] to pick up the kids at 5 p.m.” The time comes and goes, and the kids are left stranded in the rain with no way home. “So, your secondhand stress early in the morning winds up soaking your kids, stressing your spouse who can’t find them, and giving you even more stress because you let your angry family down,” he said.
When parents seem too busy, secondhand stress also stops their kids from saying what’s on their minds because they feel their problems pale in comparison.
“Communication of our feelings is key to stress relief, but secondhand stress often prevents that communication from happening when it’s most needed,” Friedman explained.
And as if these situations weren’t already stressful enough, according to Hanna, we use more energy protecting ourselves during stressful situations. “This means we can become more fatigued as the day goes on, easily carrying our irritability or distracted thinking into the home where it can negatively impact our interpersonal relationships,” she said.
Commuter Rage: The Ripple Effect Of Horn Honking
The home is not the only setting for secondhand stress. “Think of commuting and road rage or commuter rage,” Friedman said, when “you can give somebody a dirty look, or you could follow too close to someone in front of you who you think is going too slow, or you could honk your horn.”
“All of those things send messages that, for some of us, cause us to feel more physically stressed, more threatened and angry,” he explained. Secondhand stress may threaten not only your own physical or emotional health but also the safety of others. “Those stress responses can interfere with concentration and focus, which is key to safe driving,” he noted.
Secondhand Stress: A Sex-Buster
Romantic relationships can also fall under the spell of secondhand stress. “If you’re in the mood for sex, but your partner seems too stressed to do it, you might go without it, get frustrated, and even [become] disinterested if this scenario happens frequently,” said Friedman. “Secondhand stress can be a wet blanket that extinguishes intimacy.”
Secondhand Stress At Work
Anxious, hurried co-workers are the major culprits behind secondhand stress in the workplace. “If one of your colleagues is rushing around the office, they always seem too busy,” said Friedman. “We interpret that as them not having time for us or them being more important than we are,” and that triggers a stress response in you.
Avoiding the stressor can pose real problems when it comes to teamwork, productivity and goals, however, because secondhand stress prevents co-workers, team members and others from addressing problems.
The Endless Circle Of Stress
“People who cause secondhand stress are usually unaware of the impact they’re having on others,” Hanna said. “Most people don’t realize how sensitive the brain is at picking up things like non-verbal cues, changes in voice tone or inflection, noise, physical tension or choice of language.”
“Their behaviors that are causing you to feel stressed are often not directed at you,” Friedman added. “It’s highly likely that you’re not the only recipient of the secondhand stress.”
Interestingly, victims of secondhand stress may have some of the same characteristics as spreaders of stress, said Friedman. “We all respond to stress in different ways, and our stress response is exhibited in different ways,” he said. “It could be that we turn around and are short-tempered with someone else. Or someone’s rushing is contagious and then we start rushing, sometimes unnecessarily. We may become moody as a result of someone else’s mood.”
Secondhand Stress-Busting Strategies
1. Stop and think about whether your stress-provoking behaviors are harmful to you and others, and choose not to go there. “Try not to put yourself in situations where a lot of secondhand stress is created — crowds, heavy traffic, long lines,” Friedman said.
2. Build boundaries and healthy habits. “The best way to limit the effects of secondhand stress is to become self-protective of your energy,” said Hanna. Some of her relaxing self-care tips:
- Take five-minute breaks every hour
- Stretch or walk around for a few minutes
- Try mini-meditations
- Add more humor into your day
3. Carry a virtual stress management kit that includes “a breathing technique that you can do, something that you can think about — such as ‘It’s not about me, it’s about all of the pressure that that person is feeling’ — a way to blunt that secondhand stress from having too much of a negative impact on you,” said Friedman.
4. Communicate directly. “It may seem really challenging and difficult at first, but it will help to get to an understanding faster and it will be less stressful,” Friedman explained. Hanna suggests saving email messages as drafts and spending time re-reading for tone so you’re not causing others unnecessary stress.
5. Don’t let little things get to you. “Being able to see minor annoyances in the scope of the bigger picture can help,” said Hanna.
6. Accentuate the positive. “Practice seeing what’s positive around you by writing down a few things you’re grateful for each morning so that the negatives don’t have as much power to stress you out,” Hanna said.
7. Don’t spread secondhand stress. “If we reduce the amount of secondhand stress we’re emitting, it will be less stressful for the people around us,” Friedman said, which will make it easier for them to tell us what’s on their minds.