The brain is very sensitive to anything that may be perceived as a threat in our environment.

When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we too should be worried. This triggers what’s called an “amygdala hijack” where the more primitive part of our brain responds in a more knee-jerk reactive way (based on the limbic system, fight or flight mechanisms) rather than a mindful, responsive, reflective way.

When we experience stress, whether real or imagined, it requires a greater amount of energy to be used in order to fuel potential fight or flight situations. This means we can become more fatigued as the day goes on, easily carrying our irritability or distracted thinking into the home where it can negatively impact our interpersonal relationships with those we care about. 

People who cause second-hand stress are usually unaware of the impact they’re having on others. Most people don’t realize how sensitive the brain is at picking up things like non-verbal cues, changes in voice tone or inflection, noise, physical tension, or choice of language. 

If someone is aware that they might be causing secondhand stress, the best thing they could do is take a few deep breaths before communicating or interacting with others.  Secondhand stress can also be caused via email, so saving messages as drafts first and spending a few extra moments re-reading for not just type but also tone can be helpful, saving precious time and energy in the long run.

The best way to limit the effects of secondhand stress is to become self protective of your energy, building appropriate boundaries and establishing healthy habits that allow for personal recovery such as 5-minute breaks every hour, getting up to stretch or walk around for a few minutes, deep breathing exercises, mini-meditations, and adding more humor into your day.  Being able to see minor annoyances in the scope of the bigger picture can help mediate the intensity of the stress, decreasing its effects. Practice seeing what’s positive around you by writing down a few things your grateful for each morning so that the negatives don’t have as much power to stress you out.

A few other quick tips for decreasing secondhand stress: 

1. Schedule consistent 50-minute work hours and make sure to force yourself to take a break for 5-10 minutes away from it all. 

2. When a colleague asks to talk for a minute (and you know it’s going to take longer) set expectations from the beginning by letting them know how much time you have. By communicating with the right attitude (“I’d love to chat but I only have 2 minutes right now” or “I’d like to discuss this but it’s a bad time, let’s pick a time where I can give you my full attention”) people won’t feel shunned and you can still keep your focus where you need it in the moment. If you do decide to chat, set a timer to go off in the allotted time frame so you aren’t constantly worried about the clock. This helps you to be more fully engaged in the moment, and will keep the conversation more on point. 

3. Schedule “appointments” in your calendar away from the office to recharge your energy (go to a coffee shop, walk in the park, go to a bookstore and browse, get a massage). These recharge appointments should be just as important as any other client or team meetings you have during the day.

4. Turn off distractions as much as possible. Limit email time to certain blocks during the day and take mailbox offline when returning emails so you’re not fighting a losing battle (respond to 1 message, receive 5 more).  Face away from your computer screen whenever possible. Close your door.  Wear silencing headphones to block out background noise.  Have a sign you put on your door or cubicle wall when you’re in “focus mode” asking people to come back in 30 minutes.

Final thoughts:  Stress can be a positive source of motivation if we have the resilience to manage it effectively. When stress becomes hazardous is when we’re running low on resources such as time and energy, and our brain becomes overly sensitive to the negatives around us. 

By far, the best way to fight off secondhand stress is to build in consistent self-care practices that allow time for recovery and relaxation. Simple things like moving more often, eating regularly, and taking consistent breaks can recharge our system so we’re better able to handle the stress that is a naturally occurring element in a healthy life.

Additional Resources: 

Dr. Hanna Youtube video on Secondhand Stress
Entrepreneur.com article - Avoiding Secondhand Stress
Harvard Business Review article: Making Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress.