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All about Second-Hand Stress

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Most of us have felt stressed at some point in our lives and it’s very likely that we’ve also felt second-hand stress, even if we don’t know what this particular term means. Stress is the body’s natural response to a perceived challenge or threat, whether real or imagined.

Essentially, this is the body’s natural way of preparing itself for action in the face of a demanding or difficult situation. Second-hand stress is stress that occurs as the result of someone being around another person who is stressed.

While there are no specific statistics on second-hand stress, researchers have found that stress is contagious, and that people are affected by the stress levels of other people around them. A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that when people were asked to perform a stressful task in the presence of someone else who appeared to be stressed, their cortisol levels increased much more than when they performed the task alone.

In this article, we’ll tell you all about second-hand stress and how to manage it.

What is second-hand stress?

As mentioned above, second-hand stress is a type of stress that is experienced when you’re with someone else who appears stressed. This is also known as empathetic stress or vicarious stress. Essentially, when we interact with or observe someone who is experiencing stress, we can trigger our own stress responses, which causes us to feel stressed too. This can even happen when the stressor or problem doesn’t directly affect us.

For instance, if a friend is experiencing work-related stress and tells you about it, you might also start to feel stressed or worried for them. Similarly, you can feel second-hand stress by watching news reports about an accident, a crisis or a natural disaster. Even though you are not directly affected or even know the people involved, it is possible to experience feelings of stress.

Second-hand stress can have a negative impact on a person’s mental and physical health. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of it and take appropriate action to help manage it when it does occur. This might mean practising stress-management techniques, setting boundaries, or seeking support from other people.

Suffering second-hand stress

What causes second-hand stress?

Second-hand stress is caused by our natural tendency to empathise with others and mirror their emotional experiences. When we observe someone experiencing stress, our brain may respond by activating the same stress response in our own body. This can lead to the experience of stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions even if we are not directly involved in the stressful situation ourselves.

There are several contributing factors to second-hand stress.

 These include:

  • Empathy: Our ability to understand and share others’ feelings can cause us to experience similar emotions like stress. When we empathise with someone who is stressed, we can end up feeling stressed ourselves.
  • Mirror neurons: These are specialised cells in our brain that are activated when we observe someone else performing an action or experiencing an emotion. This can cause us to mirror their emotions and experiences, including stress.
  • Cognitive appraisal: Our own thoughts and beliefs about a situation can influence our emotional response. When we perceive a situation as stressful, our body may respond accordingly, even if the stressor is not directly affecting us.
  • Environment: Our physical environment can also contribute to second-hand stress. For example, a noisy or chaotic work environment can create a stressful atmosphere, even for those who are not directly involved in a stressful situation.
  • Relationship dynamics: Relationships with others can also play a part in second-hand stress. For example, if we are close to someone who is experiencing stress, we often feel a sense of responsibility to help them or worry about their well-being, which can cause us to feel stressed ourselves.

Signs of second-hand stress

Like first-hand stress, the signs of second-hand stress vary from person to person.

There are, however, some common indicators that suggest someone may be experiencing second-hand stress:

  • Physical symptoms: Second-hand stress can cause physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, fatigue and digestive problems.
  • Emotional symptoms: People who experience second-hand stress may also feel anxious, irritable or overwhelmed. They may also have difficulty concentrating or feel a sense of dread.
  • Behavioural changes: Someone experiencing second-hand stress may have changes in their behaviour, such as becoming withdrawn or avoiding certain situations. They may also have difficulty sleeping or experience changes in appetite like binge eating or not feeling hungry or able to eat.
  • Cognitive symptoms: Second-hand stress can also affect a person’s thought patterns, which leads to negative or pessimistic thinking as well as an inability to focus or make decisions.
  • Increased sensitivity: People experiencing second-hand stress may become more sensitive to the emotions of others or have a heightened emotional response to stressors that they may not have previously found stressful.

Second-hand stress presents itself differently from person to person and it may not even be noticeable. Some people don’t show outward signs of stress, but they may still be affected by the stress levels of those around them.

Anyone who experiences second-hand stress might find it helpful to seek support from a mental health professional. It’s also a good idea to try some stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness, exercise or spending time in nature.

Physical symptom of second-hand stress

How to deal with second-hand stress

Dealing with second-hand stress can be challenging, particularly since there is nothing you can do to solve the indirect problem that’s causing the stress.

However, there are several strategies that can help people to manage these experiences:

1. Know what to look out for: Being aware of the signs of second-hand stress means you’ll be able to identify it when you are experiencing it. This will help you take steps to manage your stress levels before they become overwhelming.

2. Practise self-care: Taking care of yourself is important for managing stress. Self-care will mean different things to different people. It can include making sure you get enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise or physical activity.

3. Set boundaries: Setting boundaries around your time and energy can help you manage stress. This can include saying no to commitments that you don’t have the capacity for, or limiting the amount of time you spend in stressful situations.

4. Seek support: Talking to a trusted friend, family member or mental health professional can be helpful in managing second-hand stress. They can offer support and guidance on how to cope with stress and develop healthy coping strategies.

5. Practise relaxation techniques: Techniques like deep breathing, meditation or yoga can help you manage stress and reduce anxiety.

6. Practise empathy without taking on the stress: It’s important to empathise with others, but you don’t have to take on their stress. Practise listening and offering support without letting their stress become your own.

7. Practise self-compassion: Being kind to yourself when experiencing second-hand stress is important. Recognise that it’s normal to experience stress in response to difficult situations.

Overall, managing second-hand stress requires a combination of self-care, setting boundaries, seeking support and practising relaxation techniques. By taking steps to manage stress, people can reduce the impact of second-hand stress on their physical and emotional well-being.

How to stop second-hand stress

It might not be possible to stop second-hand stress from occurring entirely. This is because it is a natural response to the stress of those around us. However, there are several strategies you can use to minimise its impact.

If there is a particular scenario or setting where the second-hand stress comes from, it can help to create a positive environment. Whether at home or work, creating a culture of open communication and encouraging positive interactions is a good idea.

Another way to try to prevent second-hand stress is to encourage mindfulness, meditation or yoga. Depending on who is affected by the initial stress, this might be difficult to achieve.

If the second-hand stress is occurring in the workplace or somewhere in which you have to designate tasks, it can be useful to set clear expectations and guidelines. This helps to reduce uncertainty and stress for those doing the tasks and, ultimately, will prevent second-hand stress for you. In this sort of set-up, encouraging healthy boundaries is also important as this can prevent stress from spreading through the organisation. Boundaries can be things like encouraging people to take breaks away from their desks, especially during lunchtime.

Wherever the second-hand stress is coming from, fostering a culture of support will allow everyone involved to feel more connected to one another. This will encourage people to share their feelings so that situations can be supported in the early stages of a problem to prevent things from worsening.

Though preventing second-hand stress from occurring entirely may not be possible, creating a positive and supportive environment, promoting stress-reduction techniques and fostering a culture of support, can help minimise its impact on yourself and others.

What are the consequences of second-hand stress?

Second-hand stress can have a significant impact on a person’s physical, emotional and mental well-being. It can cause physical health problems like muscle tension, fatigue, headaches and digestive problems in the short term. Over time, however, this can increase a person’s risk of developing more serious health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Besides the potential physical consequences of second-hand stress, there is potential for emotional and mental health problems to develop too. This includes anxiety, depression, burnout and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function in their daily life and may require professional support to manage effectively.

Stress of any kind can also lead to strained relationships, both in a person’s home life or at work. People experiencing stress may become irritable, short-tempered or withdrawn, which can impact their ability to communicate effectively or maintain positive relationships.

Even if the second-hand stress isn’t occurring at work, it can still lead to decreased productivity. The person might find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions and completing tasks effectively can become an issue.

Ultimately, the person’s quality of life is affected in many ways, which is why it’s important to recognise the potential consequences of second-hand stress and take steps to manage stress levels to prevent negative outcomes.

Decreased productivity

Who is more susceptible to second-hand stress?

Everyone is susceptible to experiencing second-hand stress, but some people may be more vulnerable than others. Those who are naturally highly empathetic may be more susceptible to second-hand stress, as they are more likely to absorb the emotions of those around them, for example.

People in particular job roles are also more susceptible. For instance, those in high-pressure or emotionally demanding environments like healthcare, the emergency services or social work might be more susceptible to second-hand stress.

Another factor at play is a person’s life experience. If a person has a history of trauma, they might be more susceptible to second-hand stress. This is because they may be triggered by situations that remind them of their own traumatic experiences.

Finally, personality can come in to play. People who are highly sensitive, perfectionistic or those who struggle with anxiety may be more susceptible to second-hand stress. This is because they might be more likely to internalise stress from those around them.

Though some people are more susceptible than others, it’s important to recognise that everyone is vulnerable to experiencing second-hand stress and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for managing it. However, by recognising the factors that may increase susceptibility, individuals can take steps to manage their stress levels and protect their well-being.

Final thoughts on second-hand stress

Second-hand stress is a common phenomenon that can have significant negative consequences for a person’s physical, emotional and mental well-being. Whether it’s due to work-related stress, personal relationships or other factors, second-hand stress can impact anyone, though some are more susceptible than others.

The good news is that there are strategies that can be used to help manage stress levels and protect well-being. These include setting healthy boundaries, practising stress-reduction techniques and seeking support from a mental health professional. By taking proactive steps to manage stress levels, people can minimise the impact of second-hand stress and live happier, healthier lives.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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