What Is Secondhand Stress & What You Can Do About It
Updated on March 31, 2022 by Jes Dickerson
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Secondhand stress is the stress that rises up in you as a result of being around other people who are struggling to deal with their own negative emotions. It can come from the people that are closest to you like a spouse or friend, but you can also catch it from that random guy on the subway that was yelling at someone on his phone. In fact, you can even have a stress response to an angry text your friend sent you about how rude their boyfriend was this weekend.
Secondhand stress, also known as empathetic stress, has a two-part cycle of someone stressing you out and then you, in turn, stressing someone else out. It’s the stress we bring home from work or the stress that our coworker brings to work from home.
Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed — but it can be changed. Stress is energy that’s being passed from person to person. You have the power to change the energy that’s been handed to you and be the one that breaks the cycle. Here are 6 ways to be the energy change you want to see in the world.
SOME STRESS IS GOOD – BUT NOT ALL OF IT
As weird as it sounds, some stress is good. When we’re stressed and working on a deadline, we work faster and smarter through the aid of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone and it’s pumped out by your adrenals, which are 2 glands that sit atop your kidneys. Evolutionarily, cortisol was meant to aid in fight or flight response. It’s the hormone that helps Grandma lift the car off her trapped grandchild or allows you to outrun that crazy dude behind you with the knife.
Cortisol gets the bad rap for giving us all this belly fat and messing with our metabolisms – which it does if it’s constantly swimming around our bloodstreams.
Cortisol gets pumped out when you’re stressed, and if you’re constantly stressed, it’s always there. Your liver can only break down so much of it at once, so if you’re stressed, 5 minutes of deep breathing will help, but only if you don’t go right back into the fray for the rest of your 23 hours and 55 minutes.
This is key because chronic stress can cause a whole laundry list of problems including anxiety, sleep problems, weight gain, headaches, and heart disease.
Stress can become a vicious cycle. One day you might be feeling relaxed and refreshed, but then you go to work and your coworkers spend all day dropping their stress off at your desk. By the end of the day, you’re miserable. Then you take that home and release your stress to your spouse and your kids. Now your house is stressful. And then you take that stress to work…over and over until you die.
It doesn’t have to be that dramatic. But you do need to be aware of the cycle because as absurd as it sounds, it’s a way of life for a lot of people.
Because of the way the stress cycle works – someone stresses you out, then you stress someone else out – stress has this Karmic element. If you send stress out in the world around you, it might come right back and bite you on the butt.
Because of this fact we need to deal with both sides of the cycle – the stress you give and the stress you get.
THE STRESS YOU GIVE
Let’s face it, we live in a stressful time. We have 24-hour news that loves telling us about all the things that are wrong with the world, our jobs expect us to work 60+ hours a week, plus all the personal things in our lives that we worry about (health, social life, crushing student loan debt, etc).
However, if we carry this stress around with us everywhere then we are part of the problem, not the solution.
And while there are tons of ways that you can destress, here are 3 that aren’t your standard go take a bubble bath ideas.
1. Change Your Attitude
The biggest indicator of how you will react to stress is based on the mindset you have around it. If you believe the stress will harm you, it will. If you think it will help you, it will. You can reduce your blood pressure and actually get a benefit from stress by simply believing the stress can help you power through this project as opposed to just feeling like it’s this massive weight on your shoulders.
The next time that you are going through a stressful period, don’t think about all the ways that stress is bad for you, change your viewpoint to how it can help you. Picture it making you better/faster/stronger so that you can plow through this time like the superhero you are. I’m not saying that stress can help you leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it might help you soar through your inbox in record time.
2. Keep a Stress Journal
Part of the problem with stress is that it can be very nonspecific. We are stressed, we know we are stressed, but we don’t know WHY we are stressed. Is it work, or friend drama, or mama drama, or kids, or… The list goes on forever.
If we don’t know exactly what is causing our stress, we don’t know how to make it better. You can’t come up with a solution if you don’t know what the actual problem is.
Enter the stress journal. The stress journal works just like a sleep or food journal. You notate at various points in the day that you feel stressed and what is causing it. Over the course of the week (or month if necessary) patterns should start to emerge.
Maybe you’re going to bed too late so you’re tired and that makes the whole day gloomy. Maybe you’ve got an energy vampire in your life who is stealing all your good vibes. Maybe your boss keeps taking credit for your hard work.
Once you get clear on what’s causing your stress you can go to work dealing with the problem. Just being able to label the problem and know that you can make a plan will make you feel better than getting mired down in a pit of despair that you feel you have no control over.
3. Stop Saying “Have To”
This is another one of those amazing mindset shifts that can change your whole perspective. How many times have you referred to something you didn’t want to do as a “have to”?
- I have to do the dishes.
- I have to call this client.
- I have to finish this project.
The things that we say to ourselves matter. They affect our mindset and influence our feelings. So instead of saying “have to” say “want to” or “get to”
- I can do the dishes.
- I have an option to call this client.
- I want to finish this project.
When you reframe it like this —even though it might not feel sincere at first — your brain will start looking for all the reasons that these statements are true. Personally, I HATE the dishes, but if I say I want to do them, then I realize it’s because I like to see the kitchen clean. A clean kitchen makes me feel good and the dishes are a source of stress for me that I have total control over (see: stress journal).
THE STRESS YOU GET
As much as we’d like to, we cannot force other people to do the things that we want them to do. What we can do is model the behaviors that are healthy and be the energy we want to see in the world.
Just like stress has a Karmic factor, so does calm.
1. Choose Empathy
Just like telling someone to calm down has never helped anyone calm down, just telling someone to stop being stressed isn’t likely to help them.
The best choice when dealing with someone who is stressed is empathy and compassion. The person who is dealing with the stress is likely unaware of the effect that it’s having on those around her. One of which is often that people avoid the stressed individual in an attempt to protect their own energy.
However, the connection is what the stressed person needs to help them cope. If you notice someone is really struggling, go talk to them. Ask how can you help. There might not be anything that you can do other than offer a listening ear. However, it will be useful to them if you help them label their emotions — is it frustration, anger, rejection, resentment, etc — and find the source of those feelings.
Just like the stress journal works in finding your own stress triggers, you can help them find theirs and then they can go to work dealing with it.
I say all this with one caveat — if you have tried this tactic and it never seems to help because the person just wants to vent and vent and vent, you might have an energy vampire on your hands. Someone who only wants to siphon off your energy and drag you into their pity party. If they truly are an energy vampire no amount of your energy will help them, they need to work on themselves before your compassion will ever make a dent in their emotional state. Do what you can to protect your energy around them and minimize your contact.
2. Be the Positive Force
Ever see someone else yawn and then feel an uncontrollable urge to yawn yourself? That’s the effect of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the part of our brains that cause us to smile when someone smiles at us or to want to cry when we see someone else’s sadness.
Mirror neurons can help you shift the dynamic of the environment you’re in.
Most people are in a generally neutral place. We don’t tend to live in a state of ecstatic happiness or complete despair – in general, we’re usually hanging in the middle. Shawn Achor, the happiness specialist, says that your goal is to influence these people that are in the middle to come to join you on the side of positivity, not go to the dark side with the people that are stressed.
If you can bring positive energy to the group of people around you, you can influence them to also be positive. In this way, the majority of those around you become more positive and that has a chain reaction. If this happens enough you can change the whole culture of the group.
Before heading into the place where you hope to shift the energy take a mindfulness moment and destress yourself. You can try breathing or a quick meditation to help you reduce your own stress and then imagine positive energy and light filling your body and exuding from every inch of you. One of the most empowering things is to know that you get to choose how you react to your feelings. You can choose to let go of the negative ones and focus on the positive ones. What you focus on, you get more of. And so does the world around you.
3. Share What Works
One of the things people tend to not do is to share the self-care activities that work for them — unless they’re trying to sell you something. This is why I’m not advocating pushing your favorite yoga studio down every stressed-out throat you meet. I want you to demonstrate to others what works for you so they can choose to see if it works for them.
One of the biggest ways to do this is to not just vent, but demonstrate that you’re making a plan. While venting will often make you feel better, it’s one of the contributors to the secondhand stress cycle we’re trying to break.
However, if after you discuss your struggle a little you can demonstrate either how you’re handling the stress or how you are going to solve the problem that’s causing the stress, you will be modeling to others a healthy method for handling problems.
This can change the way that people will cope with their stress around others. Instead of venting on whoever will listen, they will try to solve their stress first (possibly with that breathing technique you talked about last week) and then discuss it or at least vent with the understanding that they are looking for help on how to deal with the issue.
Secondhand stress can be a vicious cycle that we can get caught in without even realizing what’s happening. However, we don’t need to be okay with our circumstances, we can change the energy of our world. By taking care of the energy you put out and the energy that others are trying to give to you, you can be part of the solution to breaking the stress cycle.