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Is Second Hand Stress Killing You? Science Proves Stress Is Contagious

Second hand stressMike Bundrant is Co-Founder of iNLP Center Training

If you’ve ever felt more stressed out after being around a stressed out person, you are not alone.

A study conducted by the departments of Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and Clemens Kirschbaum at the Technische Universitat Dresden has found that simply observing someone in a stressful situation can trigger stress responses in your own body.

Stress is responsible for a number of health issues in today’s society, and can be linked to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders. This new finding has significant implications, as even the most relaxed person comes into contact with stressed individuals frequently.

During the test, subjects were asked to complete difficult mathematical problems and interviews while performance was assessed by behavioral analysts. During the test, only five percent of the subjects were able to maintain their calm, the others experienced a significant increase in the levels of cortisol in their blood.

Furthermore, 26% of the observers who were not directly exposed to stress also showed a significant cortisol increase. The effect was stronger when the observer was in a couple relationship with the participant (40%).

Interestingly, the study also found similar results when the observers watched the stressed out individuals through a one-way mirror and on a video screen. It also seemed that gender played no role in empathic stress reactions; men and women both experienced increases in cortisol levels as a direct result of observing someone under stress.

Another fascinating study confirms that children are even more vulnerable to secondhand stress.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, attached cardiovascular sensors to mothers who were asked to give an impromptu speech while evaluators scowled critically. The sensors measured the mothers’ heart rate and other indicators for stress.

When the moms were reunited with their children, who were playing in another room, the children were hooked up to sensors too. All of the babies of the stressed mothers had an equally elevated heart rate, demonstrating that they had “caught” the symptoms of secondhand stress.

What can you do to protect yourself from secondhand stress?

The solution is to radically increase self-awareness. There may be nothing to do about the initial increase in stress due to an empathetic response. In fact, it might be dangerous to eradicate that empathy. The hope lies in becoming aware of what you are doing while you are doing it.

For example, when something triggers a stress response in you, what was it? Amazingly, we are capable of operating on such a high level of autopilot that often we find ourselves completely stressed out and don’t even know how we got there.

This is the problem. Not understanding what is happening within you leaves little hope for solutions.

Try this:

The next time you feel stress, slow yourself way down. Ask yourself what triggered the stress. Think it through. When you identify the specific trigger, name it. Put it into a cause/effect sentence, such as:

I am stressed after watching my co-worker get reprimanded. Watching him stressing out caused secondhand stress.

• I feel nervous watching this presenter get nervous while making his presentation. This is secondhand stress.

• I feel angry listening to my friend complain angrily about her neighbor. Her anger is triggering anger in me.

And so on. Identifying, naming and cause/effect associating what is happening within you gives you something clear to deal with. At that point, having clearly identified the source of your stress, you can employ whatever stress reduction methods you know to calm yourself down.

If you are not able or willing to slow down and identify the stress trigger so you can calm yourself down, then you may have a strange psychological attachment to stress – which is very common.

This attachment results in self-sabotage.

When stress of one kind or another is so familiar, we can cling to it. We do favor the familiar over the foreign because the familiar is “safe.” And it is a fact that for many of us, inner peace and calm are foreign states. Oddly, we need to learn to tolerate peace and happiness and adapt to these states if peace and happiness have been an infrequent part of our lives.

To learn more about how familiarity with negativity creates self-sabotage, watch this enlightening free video on how self-sabotage works and how to stop it.

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Is Second Hand Stress Killing You? Science Proves Stress Is Contagious

Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage and co-founder at The iNLP Center which offers online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and life coaching.

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APA Reference
Bundrant, M. (2017). Is Second Hand Stress Killing You? Science Proves Stress Is Contagious. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2017
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