Studies have shown that stress can be contagious. So, how do we stop the secondhand stress before it spirals and we feel overwhelmed?
Stress. It can be overwhelming, can’t it? As a nation, as many as one in four (74%) of us have felt overwhelmed and unable to cope in the past year, according to figures from the Mental Health Foundation. Whether it's financial worries, relationship difficulties, or feelings of being overworked and underappreciated, unfortunately, it’s not just our own stress that’s keeping us up at night.
Research has shown that thanks to emotional contagion, it’s possible for us to ‘catch’ stress, anxiety, and other emotions from people, as demonstrated in a study published in Research in Organizational Behaviour. Just watching someone else showing classic signs of stress can be enough to trigger a stress response in us, which can lead to further feelings of exhaustion, worry, and even starting to avoid certain colleagues, friends, family, and loved ones.
So, what can we do to spot the signs of secondhand stress before it starts to take hold of us? And how can we get rid of secondhand stress for good?
What is secondhand stress and anxiety?
The terms secondhand stress and secondhand anxiety refer to when you feel stressed or anxious because someone else is showing signs of stress or anxiety. Essentially, our minds and bodies are wired to keep an eye out for potential danger or threats. When we see someone else having a stress or anxiety reaction, we can unconsciously end up mimicking this, as a natural form of self-defence.
We’re able to pick up secondhand stress by seeing others’ facial expressions, hearing their voice frequency, and even picking up on specific scents or touches. What’s more, we’re more likely to experience secondhand stress from someone we know, rather than a stranger – meaning our colleagues' or loved ones' stress levels, and how they react to and express those feelings of stress, can have a serious impact on us.
Of course, being there for those we care about when they’re going through a challenging time is important, but it’s essential we’re able to do so without it costing our own mental wellbeing, by finding a way to maintain a balance between supporting someone without taking on their stress.
How do you know if someone is stressing you out?
There are a number of different signs and symptoms of stress that we can keep an eye out for. These can include emotional symptoms (feeling frustrated, quick to anger, anxious, overwhelmed, teary, or avoiding others or social situations) or physical symptoms (trouble sleeping, feeling dizzy, excessive sweating, chest pains or palpitations, digestive problems, or seeking comfort from food, drugs or alcohol). But there are also signs to watch out for that can indicate being around someone else may be causing you secondhand stress, including:
- Stress eating or drinking when they are around (e.g. eating more when you’re around someone, as a way to self-soothe or cope with how you are feeling).
- Checking your phone or avoiding eye contact while talking to others. This can be a sign that you are feeling uncomfortable with what is being shared, or are experiencing feelings of stress and overwhelm (though it’s worth noting that not everyone is comfortable with prolonged eye contact, so this isn’t always a clear sign).
- Fidgeting (e.g. tapping your feet, bounding your leg, clicking a pen, or drumming your fingers) or biting your nails can both be common ways to cope with stress, anxiety or general feelings of nervousness. If you find yourself doing this frequently around the same person or situation, it can be a sign.
- Avoiding specific people or situations (e.g. leaving the room, stopping your conversation whenever a specific person arrives, making plans without them, or being slow to respond to messages from them can be signs that you may unconsciously be trying to remove stressors from your life).
- You find yourself experiencing tension headaches or feeling overly tired when or shortly after you have to see or deal with them.
- You’d rather skip out on your favourite activities than spend extra time around them.
How do I get rid of secondhand stress?
According to the experts, it’s virtually impossible to avoid secondhand stress, thanks to our constant connections with others. We can experience secondhand stress thanks to verbal, nonverbal, and even written communication, meaning any time we interact with someone else (consciously or coincidently), we risk exposure. But that doesn’t have to mean that secondhand stress will rule our lives.
There are different skills, behaviours, and even environmental changes we can make to help us better recognise and cope with feelings of secondhand stress. If you’re unsure of where to start, here are a few simple ways you can recognise – and deal with – secondhand stress.
Learn to spot the signs and identify the cause. Not all types of stress are bad for us – or even avoidable. Big life events or changes can naturally come with feelings of stress or anxiety. And some forms of stress can help us in the short term, by motivating us keep deadlines, avoiding behaviours that could cause us to become injured, or staying focused and present in the moment during stressful situations.
Through learning to take a step back, analysing and acknowledging how you are feeling, you can start to recognise when the stress you are feeling might not all be your own. Picking up on the signs that others in your life may be stressed can be the first step towards understanding what type of stress you and/or they are experiencing, and helping to face that stress head-on.
Be there to listen, offer advice, or help out. Everyone handles stress differently. Some people may appreciate the chance to let off steam and vent, while others really value input and advice when they feel like they are struggling. If you’ve got a colleague, friend, or family member who’s going through a difficult time, check in with them and ask what they need. They may not be ready to talk, or may not even know what they need, but opening up the conversation and letting them know that you are there can be a great help.
If they don’t seem to have the capacity to talk or work things through right now, giving them space and returning to the conversation at a later date can help avoid adding additional stress for either of you right now. Pushing an issue before someone is ready to talk about it rarely helps, and can cause more anxiety and stress in the short term.
Take a break. Sometimes, removing ourselves from the situation or environment can be best for everyone involved. Perhaps you’re feeling frustrated that no progress is being made, or it seems like you’re stuck in someone else’s cycle of negativity. It’s OK to take a step back from the situation (or person) until you have the chance to look after yourself and put your emotional and physical needs first. You can’t help someone if you’re running on empty – no matter how hard you try.
Emulate the mindset you want to cultivate. We’ve all heard the advice that we should surround ourselves with positive people in order to best cultivate a positive, growth mindset. Just like negative emotions can be contagious, so too can positive ones.
Focus on sharing and promoting the feelings you hope to see in others around you. This could be through practising positive affirmations to soothe feelings of anxiety or to help create a sense of calm. Practising mindful breathing techniques to reduce or manage stress can help you to feel like you are regaining control in the moment, if you are beginning to feel overwhelmed by others or your reactions to specific situations.
Even making time to have a more mindful, clearly defined break away from your keyboard or desk can help you to clear your mind, calm your breathing, and take a much-needed few minutes to yourself to recentre. Through modelling healthier coping mechanisms and behaviours, you can challenge unhelpful workplace habits and help to show colleagues who may be overwhelmed that it’s OK to step back, take a breather, and let yourself rest, before jumping back into things.
Meditation can help you to feel calmer, more relaxed, and able to face stressful situations. Try this free guided meditation for complete relaxation.
Acknowledge and accept that it’s not all in your control. No matter how much we want to support and help others, it’s healthy to remind ourselves that other people’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions aren’t within our control. All we can do is work on our own reactions.
Learning how to recognise, acknowledge, and sit with our own feelings can help us to feel more resilient to those around us. While we can still be kind, considerate and compassionate, at the end of the day, while we may do our best to help support those around us, all we can do is focus on being kind to ourselves, and ensuring we are looking after our own mental, emotional, and physical health.
Struggling to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety? Head to Counselling Directory to find out more.