What Is Secondhand Stress and How to Reduce It

For years, health experts have warned of the health dangers of secondhand smoke. Every year it causes more than 7000 deaths from lung cancer in people who don’t smoke and can increase the risks of developing lung cancer by as much as 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Today, thanks to aggressive public awareness campaigns, most people know what secondhand smoke is and understand that it is bad for their health.

The same cannot be said of “secondhand stress,” however. It, too, poses potentially serious health risks, yet many people have not heard the term or know what it means. What is secondhand stress, why is it bad for you, and how do you reduce its negative effects? Answers to these questions can help people lead healthy lives….

What Is “Secondhand Stress”?

Secondhand stress refers to the ability to be negatively affected by the stress of others. Researchers have discovered that the brain is hardwired for emotional connection. What this means is that the emotions of others can be contagious: Someone else’s yawn can cause you to yawn and feel tired; similarly, another person’s anxiety, fear, anger—whatever the feeling—can be transmittable.

Like secondhand smoke, the emotional stress and negativity of other people in difficult situations can be damaging to one’s health. When someone is around this type of stress a lot, they can be more susceptible to its harmful health effects.

What Are the Health Dangers of Secondhand Stress?

Research into secondhand stress has shed light on its health dangers. For example, it has long been known that early childhood trauma, which can include the vicarious experience of other people’s trauma, can raise one’s chances of drug and alcohol addiction and other mental health conditions. One recent study found a strong link between early childhood exposure to secondhand stress and major depression in adulthood.

In addition to its potential effects on mental health, secondhand stress can have negative physical effects. One study found that observing a stressful event or a stressed-out person raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with various diseases, and increased heart rate and blood pressure.

How to Reduce Secondhand Stress

Experts have made recommendations for how to “make yourself immune to secondhand stress.” These appear in a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review. There experts advised changing one’s response to stress: instead of fighting it, let it be and find a positive way to relate to it. This alone could significantly reduce the negative effects of stress.

In a similar vein, changing how one reacts to the stress of others can go a long way in building one’s natural immunity to stress. Something as simple as smiling at someone who is frowning and stressed-out can be a protective buffer against secondhand stress.

Other ways to reduce secondhand stress, according to the experts? Practice gratitude. Various exercises might include keeping a journal, writing down three things that one is grateful for each day, or sending a short email of appreciation to someone, thanking them for their positive impact. Cardiovascular exercise, meditation and developing a healthy sense of self-esteem can also be effective forms of inoculation against the harmful effects of secondhand stress.

Much in the same way that knowing about the dangers of secondhand smoke can help prevent lung cancer, greater awareness about secondhand stress can help more people protect themselves from the health risks.