13 Signs You Could Have Secondhand Stress

Updated: Apr. 02, 2020

Stress is contagious, and being around certain people can set off your stress response, even when your own life is going smoothly


What is secondhand stress?

If you’ve ever gotten caught up in another person’s catastrophizing, you’ve experienced secondhand stress. Just as you yawn right after someone else does, your body is programmed to mirror the actions and emotions of other people. During secondhand stress, your body latches on to the negative vibes of someone else and goes through the same fight or flight stress response. “Our stress response is so sensitive that if one person is sending cues to another person, the other starts to mimic that,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress. “It happens in person when a person walks into the room and you sense their stress through the things they’re saying, their facial cues, and their speech.” By recognizing who triggers your stress response, you can fight secondhand stress’s harmful effects.


You feel stressed, but you’re not sure why

One telltale sign of secondhand stress is that you can’t quite put your finger on what’s making you anxious. In these cases, the source of your stress could be someone else around you passing on the pressure. “Normally that comes from the self, but in this case we’re just picking up on someone else’s false alarm,” says Joe Robinson, stress-management and productivity trainer and speaker for Optimal Performance Strategies. “We don’t think about it, which is what makes it very insidious.” (Read about these ways to reduce stress that can actually backfire.)


You’ve turned into a pessimist

Being surrounded by stressful people could ruin even the happiest of dispositions. Because your brain is wired for survival, you naturally pay more attention to negativity than positivity, making you extra sensitive to pessimism. “If you’re trying to think positively and the other person is being negative, there’s a higher likelihood that their negativity will pull you down,” says Dr. Hanna. To feel normal, your brain needs to balance every negative comment with three positive comments—which jumps to five in a work setting, she says. Make a point of talking about your team’s successes to avoid having tunnel vision for failures. (Here are the daily habits of optimists.)


You’re rushing through tasks

If your deadline is days away yet you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, you might be a productive planner who likes to work ahead—or you could be reacting to unnecessary urgency from a workmate. “There’s this sense that every minute of the day is an emergency, and it’s not,” says Robinson. “It makes the other person try to hustle up and do things as fast as they possibly can.” If your quality is suffering for the sake of speed, take a step back and ask yourself if you really need to be pumping your product out so quickly.


Your coworker is always anxious

One of the best ways to fight secondhand stress is to recognize which people trigger your stress response. Once you’ve figured out who puts you on edge, politely limit your time with that person, such as telling a coworker you have just five or 10 minutes to discuss an upcoming project. “If we’re in a situation and need to spend time with someone we know could be draining for us, set a clear boundary about your time,” says Dr. Hanna. “When it’s problematic is when it’s starting to drag on, and the person is zapping our energy. (Don’t miss these signs you could be headed for a nervous breakdown.)


Your kid is loaded down with schoolwork

When your child comes home after school or your partner returns from work, you can probably sense if it’s been a bad day, even if they refuse to talk about it. “Any member of the family that is under pressure in some sort of way transfers that,” says Robinson. “If they’re in the habit of not confiding in anybody, when we hold it in, that entrenches the false belief of stress.” Give your family members time to cool off, but make sure they know they can confide in you. Talking about stressors immediately takes off some of the burden, says Robinson.

fatigued woman sitting on couch at home
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You feel completely beat

There’s a reason being around a high-strung friend wears you out, even if that person’s worries don’t actually affect you. Picking up that contagious stress, your brain pumps all your energy into the drive to stay alive, which takes a toll on your body. “We don’t realize because we’re not connecting it to something particularly stressful, but our environment is telling us there’s a reason to be stressed out, and it’s wearing down our energy reserves,” says Dr. Hanna. That’s because stress plays an evolutionary role in driving survival behaviors. However, this can manifest as inappropriate anxiety in the modern world. (Here are more medical reasons you’re tired all the time.)


You get notifications for emails

You have two types of attention: the things you consciously choose to attend to, and the things that demand you notice, says Robinson. If you’re on a roll with an assignment at work, email notifications can force your attention to the incoming messages, signaling to your brain there’s something new to stress over, even if you don’t need to reply right away. “Notifications play to the startle instinct, which means you have to stop everything and pay attention to it,” says Robinson. And that decreases productivity, too.


Your coworker’s email sounded annoyed

Receiving a terse email could set you into a spiral of stress as you try to figure out why the sender is annoyed with you. But not so fast—you might be reading it with the wrong tone. Because you aren’t getting the body language and tone of voice you’d get in person, emails are easy to misinterpret. “People usually are being pretty straightforward, not putting in the niceties we’d get in front of someone live,” says Robinson. “Take all that with a grain of salt, and don’t be set off by any perceived tones in email.”

iStock/Pamela Moore

Your ideas are totally unoriginal

A nagging boss who pushes you harder than necessary could actually be ruining your productivity. When you’re feeling stressed, your brain puts all its energy into survival, making it hard to get your creative juices flowing. “If there really is a threat to your survival, you need to be task-focused and get things done,” says Dr. Hanna. “You don’t need to be creative…you just need to get it done and protect yourself.” (Here are more things that get harder when you’re stressed.)

iStock/Daniela Jovanovska Hristovska

Your stress feels more subtle

“Firsthand stress is stronger. It’s going to the core of who you are,” says Robinson. “Secondhand can be just as debilitating if it succeeds in setting off all the health effects of stress.” Let it go too long, and it can have the same effects as any chronic stress: impacting digestion, increasing bad cholesterol, decreasing good cholesterol, and more, he says.


You’re getting brain fog

Feeling forgetful or having a hard time staying on task? Other people’s stress could be to blame. If you’re picking up on the stress of someone around you, your brain goes into the same survival mode it uses for your own immediate threats, meaning it’s putting all its energy into keeping you safe. “When we’re picking up cues from our environment, you could have a hard time thinking clearly or logically,” says Dr. Hanna. (Find out more reasons you’re suddenly forgetting things.)


You watch the news during breakfast

“There’s a lot in the media about negative news, and it puts everyone on edge more,” says Dr. Hanna. When you’re already stressed out—like by worrying about national tragedies—you’re even more likely to pick up secondhand stress from other people. In fact, one study in Harvard Business Review found that people who started their days with a few minutes of negative news were 27 percent more likely to rate their days as unhappy six to eight hours later than volunteers who’d watched solutions-based news stories.

istock/Nicolas McComber

The person behind you in line is huffing and puffing

If the person behind you at the grocery store is prodding you to hurry up, you could end up falling into the pressure to rush. “People are on fight or flight, and the fight mechanism is breaking out,” says Robinson. “It’s not an emergency. You’ll get out, whether it’s five seconds or 55 seconds.” It’s one thing to pick up the pace to help that person out, but don’t let that person’s stress mess with your own happiness. It can be helpful to utilize breathing exercises, meditation, or strategic distraction (like doing a crossword puzzle or game on your phone), to get through things like this.