Is Stress Contagious? The Health Risks of Secondhand Stress

How to avoid spreading tension spillover to others -- and how to empathize with stressors without being affected.
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Dealing with Others' Stress

Since January, Lisa, 45, has been walking on eggshells at work. This would be fine if she were a chicken farmer. But Lisa is a hospital research assistant in Columbus, Ohio, and the people in her small department periodically end up tiptoeing around one particular staff member because she's so high-strung.

"She won't ever tell us what's stressing her out," says Lisa. "She just becomes sullen and snappish and seems about to come apart. It's hard not to absorb her tension. At the end of the day, I'm emotionally exhausted." Lisa and five coworkers have each tried to talk to the "dark cloud" as well as to their manager about the problem -- but to no avail. "We've reached our breaking point, we're so frustrated. She won't let any of us help her and our supervisor, while sympathetic, says she can't require someone to be cheerful -- or pleasant, even."

To be sure, dealing with someone else's stress is, well, stressful. While at first you may try to be understanding, eventually, if there's no improvement, you may wind up like Lisa, feeling the strain yourself. In effect, another person's stress can spread like secondhand smoke: It becomes your problem because you're there.

"Other people's excessive or ongoing stress pollutes the environment," says Brad Gilbreath, PhD, associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. "It erodes civility and causes anxiety. A stressed person is a loose cannon. You never know what is going to set him off when, and that's enormously unsettling."

It seems counterintuitive: You would think that being once removed from the source of stress would help to blunt its harshest effects. But secondhand stress is often just as corrosive, since you're powerless to deal with it directly. With firsthand stress, after all, you can act -- confront your problems, attempt a resolution, count to 10. With secondhand stress, often you can't do much more than stand there and take it.

Continued on page 2:  Women and Stress


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