Beware of Secondhand Stress

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

We’ve all been warned of the dangers of secondhand smoke, but do you know the risks of secondhand stress? Think of a time when you found yourself feeling nervous for no other reason than your co-worker was rushing around like a maniac. Urgent speaking, stomping past your cubicle, making breathless demands while gulping down another triple espresso – these behaviors bleed into the atmosphere like a bad respiratory bug. Before we even realize what’s happening, we start to feel our chest tighten and our temples pulse, and we start pounding out emails like a reporter under a cutthroat deadline because we feel as though we’re not doing enough.

Sound familiar? This is secondhand stress, and it’s rampant in our productivity-obsessed culture. We often don’t realize its effects until a lot of damage has been done. Also, many of us are perpetrators as well as victims.


Secondhand stress happens at home, too. Think of a time when you were extremely on edge and your spouse or kids told you to stop stressing them out. Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of a family member’s stress – though it wasn’t directed at you, its impact on you was significant just the same.

Aside from general work and family conflict, secondhand stress can lead to several other problems:

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  • Disorganization and forgetfulness. When someone stresses us out, we’re preoccupied and can’t manage our own complicated schedules nearly as well.
  • Failure to communicate. Do you feel like you can open up to someone who is rushing around complaining about lack of time? Of course not. And so we keep our mouths shut even when we really need to talk to the person.
  • Fatigue. Trying to buffer ourselves from secondhand stress takes energy.
  • Random outbursts. When secondhand stress builds up tension inside us, we may lash out at complete strangers simply because we’re like a balloon that needs to let out some air.
  • Feelings of inadequacy or resentment. Perpetrators of secondhand stress can make us feel like we’re not doing enough, or feel resentful of their behavior.

How do we manage secondhand stress before it manages us? Try coming up with a plan to guard your energy and well-being instead of depleting your energy on the person who is causing you stress. For instance, cultivate healthy habits (sleep, exercise, nutrition) that naturally make us more resilient so secondhand stress can’t do a number on us. Also develop a “crisis” plan when secondhand stress is at its peak. If a co-worker’s stress bubbles over in the afternoons, can you take a 15-minute walk after lunch or work from a different location for a few hours? Perhaps a gratitude journal – or simply an encouraging quote tacked to your cubicle wall – can help you find a sense of peace amid the chaos. Personally, reciting my favorite Scriptures helps me cope with stress when it’s circling around me. The important thing is to find strategies that work for you.

Finally, be aware of your own effect on others when you are stressed. Don’t become part of the problem by causing secondhand stress for those around you. By managing your own stress, you can reduce the effects of secondhand stress both at work and at home by setting a healthy, centered example.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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