Is Secondhand Stress Real?

If you feel like the anxiety of others rubs off on you, research affirms that’s actually a thing.
Published March 29, 2018

Meetings with your wound-up boss. Talking to your high-strung partner. Helping your anxious child get through homework. You start these interactions calm, cool, and collected but end them tense and troubled. That’s because other people’s stress can turn into your stress.

Research has found that through a process called emotional contagion we can catch other people’s emotions, says Pelin Kesebir, PhD, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Healthy Minds.

“We are really susceptible to other people’s emotions,” says Kesebir. “And especially negative emotions are easier to catch than positive emotions.”

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How we catch stress

Just how does secondhand stress get transmitted? In emotional contagion, two physiological responses occur simultaneously, says Kesebir, a social psychologist who studies happiness.

Here’s what happens. During face-to-face interactions, you absorb the other person’s emotions through a process called facial mimicry, or automatic mimicry, says Kesebir. When you interact with someone else, you unconsciously mimic his or her facial expressions, posture, or movements.

Facial mimicry, in turn, creates what’s known as facial feedback. “For example, somebody you are talking to is stressed out and is furrowing his or her brow, and you unconsciously do that, too,” explains Kesebir. “You get feedback from your muscles, from your movements, so your brain tells you, you are furrowing your brow, so you must be feeling bad.”

Mimicry happens all the time during social interactions, helping us to connect emotionally with one another.  “It can also make people interact more smoothly, interact better,” says Kesebir. “If a person is stressed out or unhappy, you process that information. You learn from what’s going on in the outside environment to gauge what your response should be.”

But there is a downside to this process. “There’s evidence that more empathic people—people who have more empathy—they tend to catch those emotions faster. They also engage more in mimicry,” says Kesebir.

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How you can immunize yourself

There are things you can do before, during, and after interacting with stressed people that can help immunize you against secondhand stress, says psychiatrist Patricia Normand, MD, director of Wellness and Integrative Health in the Department of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

  • Before interacting with a stressed-out person, get rid of the idea of changing him or her. “There’s nothing you can do about other people. What you can do is change your capacity to bear that stress and to decide how you want to respond rather than just have an automatic reaction,” says Dr. Normand.

    Go into the situation anticipating its effect on you, advises Kesebir. “When you have that awareness, you are fortified against its negative effects to some extent.”

  • During the interaction, take inventory. “Think about what is happening in the moment, this present stress,” says Dr. Normand. “And realize you have choices about how to respond rather than react automatically.” 

    Take a moment to pause, whether that’s doing some deep breathing exercises or stepping out of the room for a break. “One of the things that happens with stress is you get caught up in habitual ways you react to the person or the situation. And if you pause and step back, you might be able to go down a different road,” says Dr. Normand. “Your response to it makes the difference on how stressful the situation is for you.”

  • After you’ve interacted, practice self-care. “Give yourself some nurturing and some comfort,” says Dr. Normand. “Take care of yourself in whatever way you can, so that you’re not sitting in the aftermath of that stressful situation.”

    Go over whatever situation you’ve just gone through to learn from it. But don’t simply rehash the experience. “Repeating it over and over again is just a kind of rumination which isn’t going to be helpful,” says Dr. Normand. “Going back to it to think about what you can do differently the next time, that’s different than just ruminating. That could be helpful.”

  • As an ongoing practice, both Kesebir and Dr. Normand recommend mindfulness training to manage stress in general. To learn to pause effectively, Dr. Normand suggests enrolling in a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. Offered at many hospitals and health centers nationwide, MBSR follows a standard eight-week curriculum using various meditation techniques to cope with stressors in everyday life. If you don’t have time, says Dr. Normand, join a local meditation group instead or read books on mindfulness—anything that teaches you to stay centered during stressful situations.

If someone else’s stress, at work, home or elsewhere, becomes a chronic problem for you, both Kesebir and Dr. Normand recommend that you evaluate getting out of that situation or relationship. Again, be sure to step back before making a decision. “You want to think about these things when you’re not in the middle of them,” says Normand.

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