What Is ‘Secondhand Stress’? Here’s What It Means, Plus 5 Ways to Manage

Updated: Apr. 30, 2024

A leading doctor says we may be able to quiet our stress by understanding this one timely concept.

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Stress has reached all-time highs. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2022, 27% of adults in the United States said they’re too stressed to function, and 34% said that stress is overwhelming most of the time. If you feel stress, but you’re not sure why—or you feel more pessimistic, tired or irritable than usual—you may be experiencing secondhand stress.

Stress is often defined as a worry or concern about a specific issue, but Scott Lyons, Ph.D., DO, a doctor of osteopathy, licensed holistic psychologist, educator and author of the May 2023 book, Addicted to Drama, says: “Everything we’ve been told about stress is wrong.”

“Stress is a made-up word,” Dr. Lyons says. “It comes from ‘stressor,’ which is the stimulus, plus the physiological response that’s meant toward adaptation.” We react as if the stimulus is always a threat, but it’s not, and Dr. Lyons explains that with secondhand stress, “The person experiences the physiological symptoms without the original stimulus.” This is problematic because the person who experiences the stress firsthand can organize their experience and work through it, but the recipient of secondhand stress has to deal with the fallout without an organizing principle.

“Stress is not a threat,” Dr. Lyons says, “it’s actually an adaptive response, and stress only becomes a problem when we can’t process it.” Dr. Lyons uses secondhand smoke as an analogy: “You can’t exhale the smoke from a cigarette you didn’t have,” he says, “just like you can’t ‘exhale’ and process the stressor you didn’t have.”

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Take a rest from it

Just like you wouldn’t go to the gym and do endless bicep curls without a rest in between sets, you need to take a break from stressors so you can restore. “In our urgency culture, we rarely rest enough in the parasympathetic state so we can fully restore,” Dr. Lyons says.

This is why people who are in a consistent state of drama (and being addicted to secondhand stress is part of this) don’t feel comfortable when things settle down. “They’ll move toward stressors so they can stay in the revved-up state that feels comfortable and familiar to them,” Dr. Lyons says, “and secondhand stress can start to feel like the new normal. Some people use stress as a stimulant, which becomes their default way of moving through the world; they become dependent on it and no longer feel comfortable without it.

“Anxiety, crisis and chaos from a stress response can be utilized as energy—like people use stimulants like coffee or cocaine—to help people function in society,” Dr. Lyons says, but we’re using “function” loosely here, because living in that heightened state isn’t sustainable.

If we find ourselves on the receiving end of secondhand stress, it’s OK to ask for a pause. Dr. Lyons gives us permission to say, “What you’re sharing is intense. I need to pause for a moment and process.”

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Become acquainted with your physical tension

“Secondhand stress is similar to transgenerational trauma in that we don’t have the event itself to process and we only have the residue of the experience embedded in our body,” Dr. Lyons says. “So we don’t have a narrative structure to help us process the experience so we can get PTSD when we get stuck on a loop of the experience without the ability or opportunity to help us move out of the physical experience of the trauma.”

If the energy feels stagnant or stuck, ask the stressed person if they want to take a walk. If they don’t, you can take a walk alone to help shake off the tension and move it through you.

Dr. Lyons recommends pandiculation for getting in touch with how stress is settling into—and hopefully releasing from—the body. “Pandiculation is the increase of tension—like when you get a massage—so that when it is released, the brain registers it as ‘different,'” Dr. Lyons explains. “This is how we’re able to get a relaxation response and bypass what has become status quo.”

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Pay attention to your triggers

If someone shares their stressful experience and you feel like you don’t have the bandwidth to help them process—perhaps because you went through something similar in your own life—Dr. Lyons says this indicates you still have some unprocessed trauma. “One thing we know that’s important for healing and comes after healing is space,” Dr. Lyons says. “We can also call this resilience, which is when we have the capacity for more things to flow through us.”

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Ground yourself

“Feel your feet on the ground,” Dr. Lyons says. “Come back to yourself, feel a sense of weight, feel your breath.”

Dr. Lyons says we should ask ourselves three questions:

  • What am I feeling?
  • What do I notice?
  • What do I need?

Dr. Lyons says we might assume we need to relax and rest, but we might really need to go for a run and expend some of this external energy. “If we don’t process the stress, we may pass it on to someone else, and then secondary stress becomes tertiary stress,” he says.

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Accept it

As human beings out in the world interacting with other human beings, we have to acknowledge and accept that we’re going to be exposed to other people’s stress. “It’s our responsibility to process the stress we encounter whether it’s firsthand, secondhand or even thirdhand,” Dr. Lyons says. “We can’t outrun our evolution.”

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