It’s no surprise that stress is a large problem for many, but did you know that it can be contagious? Secondhand stress is a very real issue, and constantly being around people who are generally anxious, preoccupied, or negative can have the same effects as having the stressful issues yourself!
This happens a lot more than most people realize, but there’s no reason to suffer unnecessarily. After all, almost all stress is avoidable when handled correctly. Understanding and acknowledging secondhand stress and how it applies to your life will allow you to shield yourself from all of its hazardous effects, and in turn you’ll be able to prevent yourself from putting undeserved pressure on those around you.

What is Secondhand Stress?
Many people have the impression that stress is an independent issue. This seems realistic; after all, it’s not like there’s any transferable virus or pathogen involved. It all comes down to your brain releasing nasty hormones that make you feel stressed, and this pressure subsequently leads to a huge laundry list of health issues. However, scientists have found that certain “mirror neurons” in the brain work to try to keep us feeling synchronized with those around us, and these neurons can inadvertently force your brain to adopt somebody else’s stress and problems.
When the concept of secondhand stress was first discovered most studies and reports focused on its effects in in the workplace. They found that workers who always appeared rushed and busy increased the stress levels of almost everybody whom they came in contact with throughout the day. Coworkers reported feeling inferior, resentful, and anxious when exposed to such a ‘rusher’. This also creates pressure to work harder and appear busier, but in most cases overall team productivity and effectiveness actually decreased due to raised stress levels.
What’s more, secondhand stress is a problem that exists far outside of the workplace. A rushed coworker may make us feel pressured, but our family and friends often do the same thing to a much more significant degree without us ever noticing.
For example, in the aftermath of a recent car accident I found myself unsure of how the insurance compensation was going to work when it came to getting my car repaired. I was fairly certain that it would all be fine in the long run, but I eventually became bogged down by family members reciting horror stories of previous collision related injustices. In time my confident attitude wore away into one of worry and stress, even though my initial opinion on the matter had been the exact opposite!
This kind of thing happens more than you or I could ever imagine. Think about the friend who always relays their relationship problems to you, or the spouse who constantly bends your ear over how horrible their workplace is. Most people have a natural tendency to be empathic towards others, but without proper knowledge and practice this good-heartedness could be doing you some serious damage.
For all the parents out there, this is an issue that runs rampant with kids as well! When parents place exceedingly high expectations on their children they can be stressing their kids out without ever realizing it (often leading to parental resentment and other behavioral problems in the future). Just like the stressed out boss who makes his associates restless, parents have a very powerful effect on their child’s psyche and can overload it if they push too hard.

How to Handle Secondhand Stress
There are a few methods that can used to handle this kind of contagious tension. The first priority for all of them is protecting yourself from the unpleasant effects, but beyond that you need to ask yourself whether it’s worth the effort and struggle to truly fix the other person’s issues as well. We’ve listed our strategies below in order of increasing empathy so that you can decide which is best for the situations in your life.

There are people out there who literally love to complain (a more detailed explanation is available in our second installment about mind games). No matter how many helpful suggestions you offer in aid, their problems will always be too big to overcome. This effectively makes them an endless supplier of secondhand stress.
There are others who, put simply, are just jerks. They’re bound to always think on the negative side and spread it around to everyone they come in contact with. This type of person is also particularly dangerous when it comes to keeping a clean and healthy psyche.
How should you handle people such as these? I personally believe that there are some who are unfixable from certain perspectives. After all, you’re only a friend/acquaintance/coworker, not a licensed psychotherapist. If their problems persist (which they usually will if they fall into either of the two categories outlined above) then your source of unwanted and unwarranted tension will persist as well.
The simplest and safest solution in this situation is avoidance. Not everybody you know has to be a profound influence in your life, and you should usually be making an effort to weed out the bad contacts anyway. Realistically speaking, no relationship is worth it if it causes more grief than pleasure. If all your “friend” wants to ever do is talk about how hard their life is, they probably fit this bill.
There’s a big difference between seeking help and venting, and you should strive to stay away from people who practice the latter. Seek to avoid them if you can; if you can’t, try being direct about the problem and brush off any negativity that they may throw your way.
Clearly this method isn’t very empathic, but sometimes it’s necessary. Your goal in life isn’t to be some strange martyr who accepts everybody else’s stress whenever they need to vent, is it? Of course not! These kind of relationships are truly dangerous to your health, and as such should be avoided whenever necessary.

The second method for combatting contagious pressure is to maintain an uninvolved but positive attitude when presented with stress from others. There’s always something positive that can be said about the situation or the people involved, and this can be reassuring to the other person without you claiming a personal stake in the issue.
Sometimes a good word from somebody else is all it takes to change a person’s way of thinking. A positive attitude can go a long way, and maintaining a cheerful outlook works to both keep your stress levels low and offer friendly input to the other person.
You can also try using humor for an added lighthearted touch. My favorite line for stressed out coworkers or acquaintances is “It could be worse, you could be…” and then finishing the thought with a particularly ridiculous and unpleasant outcome. This usually helps to lighten the mood and ease tensions, but be careful; some people may not enjoy somebody else poking fun at their situation if it’s particularly serious.
This strategy is best used for people like co-workers, acquaintances, and friends of friends. You’re not getting involved enough to endanger yourself if the problem should persist or get worse, but you’re still offering words of encouragement to somebody in need. I find this to be the most applicable method for handling secondhand stress, especially because practicing it helps keep you in a good mood too!

Full-blown Compassion
This final method is very empathic and cathartic as far as stress is concerned, but it also means getting your hands dirty and delving right into the other person’s problem. It often involves you taking on the role of the trusted advisor, the confidante, the fake doctor, etc. I reserve this level of involvement for the people whose problems have a personal impact on my life, such as family and close friends.
Think about it; seeing your best friend stressed and depressed about an issue will probably make you feel bad too, and neither of the above methods would really suffice to help either of you. The closeness of the relationship dictates some hands-on assistance, and the secondhand stress will likely persist until the issue at hand is resolved.
Of course, there are still times where you need to draw the line. If a family member has a “serious” issue that requires your attention on a weekly basis, it may be time to take a step back and reevaluate the situation. However, for the real troubles of life (death, break-ups, etc.) you may be required to be a good friend and offer a helping hand if you want to avoid catching their stress.

The choice is ultimately up to you for which method you choose, but it’s good to stay out of most people’s problems if you have the option. The issues of others can pile up very quickly, and when matched with your own life’s stress you can unknowingly overload yourself if you’re not careful. However, with this knowledge in tow you can easily begin protecting yourself against the burdens of secondhand stress.

Author's Bio: 

Dakota is the founder of, a website created to help visitors unlock their true potential and become more well-rounded in all aspects of life. When not writing or working on improving himself he spends his time making silly faces, creating merriment, and otherwise frolicking.