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Secondhand Stress: How People Around You Can Increase Your Anxiety

April 02, 2015

Unless you’re living under a rock, you are most likely aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke. It can increase your risk for heart disease and lung cancer, amongst other health issues.

But what if I told you that even the non-smokers around you can have an impact on your blood pressure, heart and mental well-being? What if I told you could be affected by secondhand stress?

It’s true—stress from others can affect your own stress levels, and have an impact on your health.

A 2009 study published in the Public Library of Science found that when people are stressed they release a chemical that can be inhaled by those around them, causing these people to become more anxious, as well. In a nutshell, the researchers are saying that it’s possible to breathe in stress the same way you breathe in secondhand smoke.

Though stress may be contagious, there are still things you can do to lower your stress levels or prevent them from increasing altogether.

What is Secondhand Stress?

How exactly can you catch stress in the same way you can catch the common cold?

In the study, researchers exposed the sweat of 144 first-time skydivers to study participants and then looked at an MRI of activity in their brain. They found stress chemicals became airborne signals that triggered the amygdala, the emotional processing and decision-making center of the brain, resulting in the communication of emotional stress to other humans nearby.

This isn’t surprising given what we know about the body’s chemistry. When we are stressed or under a lot of pressure, for example at work or in family situations, our bodies become programmed to release signals to other people around us warning them of the potential danger.

Most experts initially thought that the body received only verbal and visual signals indicating stress, but this research indicates that there’s a chemical reaction, as well.

Breathing in secondhand stress chemicals also makes you more aware of how people look and what they are doing. This heightened level of awareness can make you more stimulated and make you feel anxious without even realizing it. As you become more stressed, you also release chemicals that stimulate other people around you, creating a cycle that can be hard to break.

Secondhand stress can be passed through facial expressions, voice frequency, odor and touch. People are four times more likely to catch stress from someone they know, such as coworkers, friends or family members. For example, a University of California San Francisco study showed that mothers who were exposed to a stressful situation without their babies could pass along those stressful feelings to their child once they were reconnected. The study also showed a significant rise in the heart rate and blood pressure of babies that were not exposed to the stressful situation, but were simply reunited with their mother who had been.

How to Reduce Your Stress

Stress isn’t good for anyone’s health. Stress can affect your blood pressure, heart and mental well-being.

Like secondhand smoke, there are ways you can avoid secondhand stress. The best way is to understand how you manage stress. If you can reduce stress within yourself, then you can reduce the overall stress in your environment. Also, think about the people with whom you surround yourself. High-stress people can cause you to become more anxious, too. Obviously if the high-strung people in your life are family members and coworkers, it will be difficult to completely avoid them. However, once you acknowledge how their stress may impact you, it will be easier to control it. Try your best not to engage or participate too much in their feelings of anxiety. Instead, introduce positive thoughts into the conversation or simply excuse yourself from the discussion by taking a walk or focusing on other tasks at work or at home.

If you are stressed, the most important thing to do is first pinpoint the source of your stress. Once you identify the problem, practice behavioral techniques to manage these situations, like focusing on your breathing, writing in a journal or making a to-do list. Writing things out can help you clearly see what challenges lie ahead and help you create solutions for how to manage these issues. Stress sometimes can be overwhelming, regardless of whether it’s first or second hand. However, learning how to manage it can help you live as happy, healthy and fulfilling a life as possible.

Interested in learning more about stress management?


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