Is Stress Contagious? The Health Risks of Secondhand Stress
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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.

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.

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.

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.

How to Cope with Stressors

Worst-case scenario: Secondhand stress, regardless of its original source, can actually take on a life of its own, says Sonia J. Lupien, PhD, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Douglas Hospital/McGill University, in Montreal. "Stress hormones affect how you think, making you see situations as worse than they are," she says. "You may assume that the other person is stressed and react in anticipation. Then just hearing the sound of your husband's keys in the door can trigger your stress response, even if he's not stressed anymore."

Sadly, that's begun to play into the stress Lisa feels around her cranky coworker. "I literally get a sinking feeling when I wake up and realize it's a weekday," says Lisa. "I love my job, but she's making me feel like I don't want to go in."

Since stress is contagious, wouldn't the best defense be to learn how not to feel others' pain? Wrong, experts say. "Feeling someone's stress is the trade-off for being an empathetic person who has friends she can rely on," says Dr. Wethington. And experts argue that our ability to catch the feelings of others -- positive or negative -- ultimately helps us connect with and care about people. "Emotional contagion, or empathy, serves a critical function in helping us relate to others," says John T. Cacioppo, PhD, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. "We should strive for the ability to feel what others feel." At the same time, experts say, there are ways to be empathetic and still look out for yourself.

"The best coping strategy is to tell the other person up front how his stress is affecting you," says Dr. Wethington. As obvious as that sounds, many women would rather squelch their feelings than assert their own needs. Avoid the temptation to shut up and put up and remember there are ways to express your concern -- and voice your stress -- empathetically. Ask how you can help, but set realistic limits so neither of you feels exploited. Verbalizing in this way also helps you wrest back some control. "It's a way to process and make sense of your emotions -- and also to let go of them," Dr. Lupien explains.

Another strategy that experts recommend is to work on regulating your feelings and responses. Of course when you're frantic and fed up, it's not easy to stand back from the situation and figure out the most logical course of action, especially if you're like Norma, 47, a stay-at-home mom in Boulder, Colorado. She describes herself as "the kind of person who grabs problems by the lapel," but when her sister was upset because her husband was involved in a disturbing legal dispute, Norma realized how her response to her sister's stress was hurting their relationship. "My sister deals with stress by sleeping, and sometimes I just wanted to shake her," says Norma. "But I saw how my frustration and anger were driving her away, and I've learned to just be there for her and to model good choices."

Finally, you should regularly give yourself time to get away from your stressors, direct or indirect, and recharge your batteries, though, as Dr. Wethington acknowledges, that's hard for women to do. "It doesn't have to be daily. It could be weekly," she says. "The point is to do something that makes you happy and increases your positive feelings, such as spending time with friends. That's one of the most successful ways to reduce stress."

Anne, the radio station traffic manager, has started using this strategy to survive while sharing an office and a home with stressed-out people. "Every Thursday I have ladies' night with my pals," she says. "We go out to dinner, we catch a movie. We have fun. Initially being away for three hours seemed monumental. Would everything fall apart? But life seems to be staying on track without me. And those three hours away sustain me all week." After all, stress shouldn't be the only thing you catch from your friends.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, July 2006.