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Is stress contagious?
Second-hand stress is the real deal


October 2014

You may not realize it, but your stress level could be negatively affecting those people who are closest to you. Secondhand stress is on the rise, but there are steps you can take to counteract it.

Secondhand stress is defined as the unconscious absorption of negative emotions, usually from people closest to you. Before you say that you’re not affected, consider the following:

• Your work colleague is constantly complaining about the job. Watching him stress out causes secondhand stress for you.

• Your spouse is overwhelmed with caring for an aging parent. That stress is transferred to you.

• A friend is always negative and angry. Her anger triggers anger in you.

Once recognized mostly among health care providers, secondhand stress now is more often seen outside of the medical profession by people who may not know how much they’re being affected.

"It can definitely creep up on you," according to clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Lynn Mack of Pewaukee. "People need to take a more assertive stance to deal with it."

Women can be more susceptible to secondhand stress, especially those who feel obligated to constantly care for people and to soothe others’ pain. The desire to be there for others even when you’re feeling stretched yourself can open you up to taking on people’s burdens and negative feelings. The more empathetic a person is, the more likely he or she will suffer secondhand stress.

One type of person at risk for secondhand stress may be those "addicted to adrenaline." Watching certain TV shows or videos showing bad news in vivid detail may be exciting, but it can increase viewers’ stress level without them realizing it.

Symptoms of secondhand stress mimic post-traumatic stress disorder: sleeplessness, anxiety, loss of appetite, isolation, exhaustion, inability to focus and irritability.

Mack says there are three steps in dealing with secondhand stress.

First, there is what she calls the non-negotiables: Pay attention to nutrition and get plenty of sleep.

Second, seek social support. Friends, co-workers and relatives can help you de-stress. And finally, disengage. Make sure you have a hobby or a passion and make time to enjoy it.

Why is secondhand stress becoming more prevalent?

"We’re a highly competitive culture," Mack says. "We must constantly be producing and doing." Social media and technology are also reasons. "Technology helps us, but is a barrier to enjoying other aspects of life like hobbies or friends," she says.

Foods that fight stress

"Eating certain foods and eating well will help you feel healthier, and then you can handle the stress better," says Dr. Kit Werner, a nutritional sciences clinical director at UW-Milwaukee. "Good nutrition as a whole will help you reduce stress."

But some foods are better than others when it comes to stress:

• Oranges, red peppers, strawberries: The vitamin C eases feelings of stress.

• Skim milk: The calcium reduces both tension and muscle spasms.

• Salmon: The omega-3 helps keep adrenaline at a reasonable level.

• Spinach, chard, kale: They’re magnesium-heavy, which promotes normal nerve and muscle function.

• Almonds, pistachios, walnuts: The vitamin E is an antioxidant that improves the immune system to better help fight stress.

• Dark-colored fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots: They contain vitamin A, which, like vitamin E, regulates the immune system.

And, contrary to what we would like to believe, Oreos, ice cream and other comfort foods are not the answer. "The occasional cheeseburger is pleasurable," Werner says. "It takes your mind off the stress." But in the long term, too much comfort food will only add more stress to the body. Werner says the key to handling stress with diet is to fortify the body, to help it to fight the effects of stress: "If you don’t listen to your body, your body will make you pay."

– Mark Concannon


This story ran in the October 2014 issue of: