secondhand stress

How Your Secondhand Stress Affects Others

We often talk about how stress affects us, on a mental, physical and emotional level. But what about the impact of stress on those around us?

Humans are social animals; we mimic and reflect the behavior of those we interact with. As a simple example, just think of how contagious someone else’s yawn can be, even when you’re not sleepy at all!

We relate to our fellow humans so strongly that we mirror their facial expressions, their body movements, and yes, even their emotions – including anxiety and panic.

By applying Gary and Michelle’s BE GREAT method (especially the TEAM Principle, which focuses on others around you), you’re not just improving your own wellbeing; you’re benefitting everyone you interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Empathetic Stress: An Experiment

A study at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences found that even simply observing others in stressful situations can trigger a physical stress response.

The setup worked as follows: The test subjects had to struggle with difficult mental math problems and interviews, while being assessed by two supposed behavioral analysts. Only 5% of the test subjects managed to stay calm, while the other 95% displayed a significant increase in their levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”.

Observers were asked to watch the subjects as they underwent these stressful situations. Here are the key findings from the experiment:

  • A total of 26% of observers showed a significant physiological increase in cortisol when watching the subjects.
  • 40% of observers experienced a stress response if the subject they were watching was their romantic partner.
  • 10% of observers experienced a stress response if the subject they were watching was a complete stranger.
  • 30% of observers experienced a stress response when watching the subject directly through a one-way mirror.
  • 24% of observers experienced a stress response when watching the subject virtually via video transmission.

What Does it Mean?

This experiment shows us just how badly our stress can impact those around us. While emotional closeness is definitely a factor in empathetic stress, it’s not a necessity. Our family, friends and loved ones might be more deeply affected by our emotions, but our stress can also rub off on colleagues, acquaintances and even total strangers.

It’s official; stress is contagious, and when you feel stressed, others around you will pick up on it. Just like secondhand smoke, secondhand stress can be detrimental to the people you care about.

The Effects of Secondhand Stress

Now, a temporary stress response isn’t always a bad thing; cortisol helps your body to react when you’re exposed to a real danger, and your stress response signals that danger to others around you. It’s useful stuff! But the problem lies with chronic stress, which causes permanently elevated cortisol levels.

Common side-effects of chronic stress (direct and empathetic) include:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Significant changes in weight
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Poor decision-making
  • Ulcers and digestive problems

People who work as caregivers, those who have close relationships with chronically stressed loved ones, or anyone who is confronted with the long-term stress of another person, run a high risk of being affected by that stress themselves.

Prevention is Better than Cure

If people around you can “catch” your stress, that means somebody else’s stress can affect you too, right? Absolutely! But the good news is, you can choose not to take on another person’s stress.

Just as you would take a multivitamin to guard against infection during ‘flu season, you can take steps to protect yourself against stress contagion. The BE GREAT Principles are five key guidelines you can follow, to make yourself much less susceptible to stress.


Breathing deeply is an immediate physical response that lowers stress in your body, and sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. Try breathing in to the count of four, hold for four and exhale for four. 


Expectation is a mental approach we can use to avoid increasing your stress and pressure unnecessarily. If we expect the world to work in a certain way which is not based on reality, then we will create failure, disappointment and stress. Think about what your expectations are; try to keep them positive and realistic.


Focus on what you are grateful for throughout the day; this will release regular amounts of dopamine, a “happy hormone” that decreases stress.


Look at a difficult situation from a positive perspective; this will releases serotonin, a hormone that calms and balances your mood.


Stress reduces your energy levels, but exercising daily helps build up your energy stores through the release of endorphins. Making the right food choices also increases your vitality and productivity.


Words have so much power. Choose your words carefully and keep them positive; this helps to produce oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone that enhances social bonding while improving optimism and self esteem.


Increase your support. Watch how the people around you behave when they’re under pressure, so that you can help them if needed. They can help you cope with your stress in return.

Dopamine + Oxytocin + Serotonin + Endorphins = your daily DOSE for better stress management!

By practicing the BE GREAT Principles, and managing your physical and mental health, you are guaranteed to respond to stressful situations more positively. This will help you to lead a happier, healthier life, and to create more successful relationships all round.