Is Stress Contagious? The Health Risks of Secondhand Stress
How "Tension Spillovers" Can Affect You
Of course, anyone who has ever experienced secondhand stress doesn't need research to know it's real. "I feel like a big tight knot," says Anne, 37, who works at a Detroit radio station as a traffic manager. "I can never relax." With a husband who just started working again after a period of unemployment and an officemate whose boyfriend died unexpectedly, Anne is doing double duty on the stress front. She has to work extra hard in the office to make sure nothing goes wrong that could upset her coworker, while her husband's new job worries mean that he's perpetually preoccupied. But more than coping with their edginess, Anne says it's her feeling of helplessness that stresses her, since she can't make them happier. "To compensate for feeling that I can't do anything for them, I try to do everything for them, in a sense," she says. "I'm tired and tapped out, but I worry that if I ease up, everything will go to hell."
Wanting to lighten a stressed-out person's load is nonetheless a common response. Rachel, 38, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wants to help her husband, whose job has become, she says, "all-consuming" since he began working at a start-up company. He's frazzled during the day and always brings work home at night. Though Rachel tries to help by taking on his household chores and letting him sleep in on weekends, she is "starting to feel like a single parent," she says. "My husband is so preoccupied, he doesn't have anything left to give. I'm tired, too, and I'm lonely, but I just want everyone to be happy."
Certainly, there's nothing wrong with trying to protect and comfort someone. But when doing so increases your primary stress load, it can jeopardize your relationship with the very person you want to help. If your assistance goes unnoticed, you may find yourself in the confounding position of resenting the person you set out to assist. Spouses, who expect mutual support, often find themselves in this predicament. "I know he's under pressure and when my husband's short with me, I try to let it go," says Rachel. "But you can pretend the elephant isn't in the room for only so long, and then you have a blowup. Inevitably, though, I end up feeling horrible for adding to his stress."
In marriages this "tension spillover," as sociologists call it, may become a stress spiral in which everybody suffers more and more. "A chronic stressor like a demanding job can make a person much more reactive to other little stressors and more primed for a fight," explains Elaine Wethington, PhD, an associate professor of human development and sociology at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. Your husband, say, may be on edge after a difficult day at work and blow up when the kids are late for dinner. The next day, he's even more likely to overreact to minor problems on the job.