Working Smarter

Secondhand Stress: 8 Ways to Resist the Stress of Others

Posted by Joe Robinson

Secondhand stress

The Delta pilot came bursting out of the locked door of the gangway that led to his plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his departure was stuck on hold. “What’s going on here?” he yelled, throwing his arms in the air in exasperation. “I have never seen it take this long to get a flight off the ground!”

He was steaming, but one of the gate agents did not respond in kind. She said calmly, “It’s a system problem with the booking, and we are working on it.” She said it with a smile and didn’t let the captain push her buttons. 

After he turned around and went back to the plane in a huff, she told her colleague. “I don’t know his job, and he doesn’t know mine.”

It was the perfect reaction to a scourge that spreads stress like a virus: the contagion of secondhand stress. She did two things that made her immune to his stress. She didn’t take it personally and separated his emotions and the cause of them from hers.


I wish I’d had it on video as a teaching instrument for most of us who are little more than mood marionettes, picking up on the stress of everyone around us. The reality is we are born to be copycats, at least when it comes to the emotional information on the faces and expressions of others around us.

Humans are designed to pick up on the mood and physical expressions of others, thanks to brain cells called mirror neurons.These cells cause us to mimic the emotional states of others, from laughing, to crying, to yawning.

We’ve all experienced the stereo yawn. You don’t even have to see the other person yawning to uncork an epic yawn. Hearing it is enough to send our simulation equipment into the actions of mock sleepiness, even if we’re not sleepy at all.

It’s all part of the equipment we have evolved as social animals to bond with others, size up threats, and increase our odds of being able to navigate the mysteries of the emotional world. Yet the simulation gear doesn’t work too well when what we are mirroring is other people’s stress, which we pick up in the form of secondhand stress.

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The authors of a study on the physical components of stress contagion, (Dimitroff, Kardan, Necka, Decety, Berman, Norman, 2017), report that “the ability to ‘catch’ aspects of another person’s emotions may serve as a relatively fast and effective way of understanding another individual’s affective state, which likely enhances one’s ability to be a successful agent in a highly complex and dynamic social environment.”


Understanding others is great, but do we have to pick up their stress in the process? As if we don’t have enough angst of our own, we are also sitting ducks for the pass-along anxiety of coworkers, spouses, friends, bosses, family members, neighbors, and cable news commentators, passed along through mirror neurons.

One of the earliest studies to confirm the contagion of stress was the Trier Social Stress Test. The investigation showed that stress-related cortisol and alpha-amylase were released not just in the bodies of nervous people asked to speak spontaneously in front of a group of judges, but also in the observers watching the speakers. It’s not just that we feel for them in their predicament. We feel like they do, their chemistry mirrored in ours.

Dimitroff et al took the exploration of the effect of others’ stress further. They wanted to see if viewing people in distress, watching people speaking in front of a group or watching videos of stressed-out individuals could cause a contagious cardiac response in the observer to reflect the jacked-up heartbeat triggered by the stress response. It did. The study showed a direct correlation, an increase in cardiac response that varied depending on the level of stress in the speakers or videos.

Subjects were able to clearly separate people who weren’t in the stress zone from the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that pulse rates of speakers or people on the videos were racing. Being able to read others emotionally is a finely tuned art that aids social functioning, but it’s hard to turn off, since it’s an “autonomic,” reflex behavior.


To keep secondhand stress from constantly triggering the survival equipment, we have to be able to find the off-switch. We want to be understanding of the plight of others, but we also need a separation. We can’t do our jobs if we are absorbing the anxiety and grief of others all day. This is a particular challenge for those who work in emotionally intense industries, from health care, to social work, and emergency services.

So let’s take a look at some things we can do to catch ourselves and resist the stress of others.


  1. Identify where the stress is coming from. Is it yours or is it coming from someone else? Ask: Whose stress am I picking up on today? The plight of someone going through difficulty is concerning, and we want to be understanding. As bad as it may be for them, though, their stress is not a life or death event for you. You are not under mortal threat. So the stress you are picking up from them is a false alarm.


  1. Talk to the person about the habit. If there is someone raising your pulse rate through impatience, anger, hostility, cynicism, unrealistic expectations, or negativity, call them on it. Let them know that a particular behavior of theirs is counterproductive and transfers strain to you and others around them. Tell them about mirror neurons and encourage them to leave their emotional hot potatoes in the microwave.


  1. Separate yourself from the event/person. Keeping distance between others’ emotions and your own is crucial. Like the Delta gate agent, you want to be able to see that the cause of the stressful behavior of others is not you but something in their own impatience, pressures, and issues. For anyone working in emotionally challenging fields, such as social work or health care, you want to feel for your clients and patients, but you don’t want to feel like them, because if you do, you run the risk of undermining your own health and ability to help them. Emotional distancing doesn’t make you less caring, just less of a potential burnout case.


  1. Don’t take it personally. Taking events personally is one of the biggest drivers of stress. It gets the ego into it, which sets off a boil of irrational emotions. In the case of secondhand stress, the art is to see that it’s personal for the person doing the stressing, not you. The cause of what that person says or mirrors to you is within their head and subject to the irrationality of their caveman brain’s fight-or-flight equipment.


  1. Exercise choice. Like guilt, secondhand stress is a manipulation by others. It may be unintentional, but it nonetheless takes your free will out of the process and leaves you a spectator in your own emotional life. That doesn’t work for humans, since one of our main core needs is autonomy, having agency over our lives. The next time someone mirrors stress, refuse to have them dictate your emotions. Tell yourself you determine the content of your life. If I grab someone else’s stress, then I will drop it, because it’s not mine.


  1. Stop mirroring others’ negative emotions. When people transmit negative emotions, the default is to pick up on that cue and go negative too. Instead, don’t respond in kind. React to complaining with positive body language and comments. Change the subject. Don’t feed the beast.


  1. Shift Mood. Moods are ephemeral. They can change in an instant. We don’t have to go with the first rote emotion that comes up from our mirroring equipment. You can crowd out the negative emotions of secondhand stress by shifting attention to a positive event or exercise. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson has found that shifting attention to gratitude, for instance, can switch off the physiological effects of stress instantly. Think about something you should be grateful for and suddenly, your blood pressure goes down and your digestion starts up again, as the stress response is shut down. Music is another great mood shifter, so have some music handy that lifts you up, and turn to it when secondhand stress bites.


  1. Try a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Let’s take a cue from the social sanctions on smoking, and have your team or organization print up signs and bumper stickers to place around the office, declaring it a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Explain what that means, and that rampant stress transmission can be as harmful as nicotine.

When people around us understand that they are unwitting drivers of the poor health of people close to them, we can all start to get more control over our reactions, which will be healthier for the stress inflictors too.

The emotional life of humans is a cauldron of reflex fears and false alarms. When we bring awareness to the role that the moods and emotional displays of others have on us, we are no longer puppets in the dramas of others. We have less consternation to wade through to tackle the stress dramas we are starring in.

If you would like to learn more about secondhand stress and our stress management training and how it can recharge your team or organization, please click the button below.

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Tags: contagious stress, mirror neurons, secondhand stress

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