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How To Cope With Second-Hand Stress If You Are A Sensitive Empath

831837_79977773Is stress contagious?

You know, those symptoms of stress, such as clenched jaw, highly-pitched voice, furrowed brow, anger, anxiety, and so on.

For some people, other people’s stressed-out emotions and moods are simply that: Other People’s Stress. OPS. Not theirs.

For others, OPS is absorbed like water to a sponge. And you DON’T have to be co-dependent to be the sponge. You may simply be sensitive.

I’m a strong believer that not every imperfect personality trait requires a diagnosis or a pathology category, and that no one, therapist or not, can truly define the best combination of personality traits. This is highly individual. Most traits have flip sides, and sensitivity—responding to other people’s feelings and concerns with empathy—is no exception.

Tips for Managing OPS:

1. This is one situation where affirmations or mantras really work, I’ve seen it work for numerous clients.  Develop a healthy-boundaries affirmations for yourself along the lines of: I will remain caring but I will NOT take on OPS emotions.

2. Give YOURSELF time-outs. That’s right. When someone else’s anxiety is ratcheting up, and you feel overwhelmed, tell them you are taking a time-out. Then go. Sometimes your time-out is contagious–and the other person finds themselves better able to reflect on their response to a stressful situation.

3. If you have a history of co-dependence, make two columns. Write down in number one healthy signs of empathy. Write down in number two unhealthy signs of empathy, or co-dependence.

4. Various spiritual paths and cultures have differing views on what constitutes intimacy vs. what constitutes unhealthy boundaries. Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who lived from 1885 to 1969, fulfilled the Jewish law that “One must love his wife like himself, and honor and respect her more than himself.”  The following example is most often given:

Rabbi Levin’s wife’s foot was bothering her. He took her to a doctor. When the doctor asked how he could help them, the Rabbi said:  “Doctor, my wife’s leg is hurting us.”

In a (traditional) Jewish marriage, this kind of tight bond not considered dysfunctional, it is considered admirable, something every couple should strive for based on the understanding that when you get married, on a very deep level, you and your spouse become one soul.

Your culture and background to a large extent determine what types of boundaries you are comfortable with and this has an impact on your level of sensitivity and empathy. There is a range of “normal” sensitivity to others, and for one person what may be dysfunctional may be healthy for another.

5. Sometimes, sensitivity to other people’s stress can be a way to avoid our own stuff. If we’re more emotionally involved in our stressed-out friend’s college grades than our own relationship or job, then it might be a sign that we are neglecting our own stuff.


Tips for parents on how to deal with kids picking up on your stress in this brief, helpful video from Miriam Manela, OT, co-author of The Parent-Child Dance ,with C.R. of the Therapy Soup Blog.

How To Cope With Second-Hand Stress If You Are A Sensitive Empath

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2019). How To Cope With Second-Hand Stress If You Are A Sensitive Empath. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2019
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