Is Stress Contagious? The Health Risks of Secondhand Stress

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Women and Stress

Generally speaking, the people most likely to cause you secondhand stress are those closest to you -- your husband, kids, parents, coworkers you see every day -- since their problems have direct, as well as indirect, consequences for you. If your husband is afraid that he'll be downsized, for instance, on top of dealing with fallout from his stress you'll be worrying about your own financial security.

Women may be more likely than men to absorb the stress of their loved ones. "We're raised to pay attention to the emotional needs of others and to take care of them, which makes us more vulnerable to their stress," says Martha Kitzrow, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Idaho Counseling and Testing Center, in Moscow. "We want to be supportive, but we end up taking too much responsibility for their well-being."

As a result women, who play so many roles, tend to accept secondhand stress as an occupational hazard. Yet given the side effects of stress -- elevated blood pressure, impaired digestion, and spotty memory, among other things -- we shouldn't resign ourselves so readily. Although little research has been done on secondhand stress per se, research in other fields is beginning to suggest that, like cigarette smoke, secondhand stress may be more harmful than we'd realized.

For example, it has been documented that emergency workers who deal with trauma victims -- and who experience an extreme form of secondhand stress as part of the job -- suffer from serious physical and emotional symptoms including muscle tension, fatigue, low energy, insomnia, and depression. Researchers in other fields are also catching glimpses of secondhand stress transmission and its very real impact: Studies of infants at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center at the University of Colorado, in Denver, have found that when parents are under excessive strain, their babies may be more likely to develop asthma and autoantibodies that put them at risk for diabetes. In another study, researcher Elaine D. Eaker, ScD, of Chili, Wisconsin, found that men whose wives regularly came home upset from work were twice as likely to develop heart disease as those whose wives didn't bring work-related stress home.

Continued on page 3:  How "Tension Spillovers" Can Affect You


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