Stress can be as contagious as germs

February 3, 2014

We can easily pick up secondhand stress from the people around us. We also can pass it on.


MINNEAPOLIS ó Debra Safyre was standing in line waiting to order lunch when she was hit by a sudden wave of anxiety.

"There was no reason for me to be triggered that way," she said. "Then I noticed the person in front of me. She was jittering so badly, shaking so badly, that I was responding to her stress ó and I didnít even talk to her."

Her experience was not unusual.

Secondhand stress ó tension that we pick up from the people and activities around us ó is a natural defense mechanism that helped keep our ancestors alive, said Dr. Amit Sood, an expert on stress at the Mayo Clinic. But as soon as we pick up that tension, we risk becoming carriers, passing it on to any friends, family members or co-workers ó and, yes, even strangers ó who we encounter.

"Stress travels in social networks," he said. "It is highly, highly contagious."

Fortunately for Safyre, a former nurse and founder of Safyre Catalyst, a Richfield, Minn.-based company focusing on personal and group energy management, she quickly realized where her surprise anxiety was coming from and was able to move away from its source.

"Itís kind of like a tuning fork," she said of secondary tension. "When you hit a tuning fork, everything around it starts vibrating with it. Itís the same thing with stress. If stress is a very strong vibration around you, youíre going to start reacting to it."

The impact that secondhand stress has on us has only recently been appreciated by psychologists, said Dr. Berendina Numan, co-founder of the Center for Counseling and Stress Management, with offices in Minneapolis and Minnetonka, Minn.

"Itís been only the last 10 years" that the topic has been explored in much depth, she said. "There hasnít been enough research to know all the answers about secondhand stress."

Doctors do know that stress in small doses is essentially a good thing, Sood said. Itís part of the bodyís warning system that creates the fight-or-flight response and generates a surge of energy that helps us deal with a crisis. But excessive or prolonged stress can lead to health issues ranging from headaches to heart problems.

Protecting oneself from secondhand stress begins with identifying its causes, said Dana Kadue, owner of Life Flow Coaching in Minneapolis.

"The first step is awareness of the things around me that create stress in my life," said Kadue, who teaches a class called "From Stress to Well-Being" for the Pathways Minneapolis health resource center. "Itís all about self-awareness, discovering when the stress shows up."

Start the investigation with whoís around at the time, suggested Sood, who wrote the recently published "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living."

"Many of us have partners, supervisors, colleagues or neighbors who are stress-provoking," he said. "How do I recognize these people? These are the people I feel judged by too much. I feel anxious when Iím meeting them. I try to avoid being with them. I find these people unpredictable. They often have high expectations and I feel like I have to be perfect with them; they are very rigid. And Iíve often found that many of these people have different moral values than mine."

Once youíve identified the problem people, you have three basic courses of action: You can change them. You can get away from them. Or you can learn to protect yourself from them.

The first two have limited applicability. A person might be open to constructive criticism about their behavior, but it must be presented in a way that doesnít put them on the defensive, Sood said. Even then, thereís no guarantee theyíll be responsive.

As for getting away from the irritant, thatís not always a viable option, either, especially for someone whose stress is coming from a boss or co-worker in a job they donít have the financial wherewithal to leave.

Which brings us to the third option: learning how to avoid falling victim.

"Stress resilience is something we can work on," Kadue said. "Itís about responding to the stress rather than reacting to it."

Both Kadue and Safyre recommend finding something supportive ó it can be a photograph, a memory or an object like a bracelet ó that generates pleasant thoughts that allow you to ground yourself during a stress-inducing situation.

"Stay in touch with it so youíre not lost in their energy," Safyre said. "If you have a confrontation, tell yourself, ĎIím not going to allow this to happen.í"

In his book, Sood outlines a number of coping mechanisms.

"One of them is that you can imagine yourself wearing either a Teflon or a Velcro vest," he said. "If itís Velcro, everything thatís thrown at you will stick. But if itís Teflon, everything slides off. So if you have to have a confrontation (with a stress-inducer), make sure you have your Teflon vest on. You canít give that person the key to your heart."

The source of the stress is not always a person, Numan said. "Sometimes just walking into a place that is set up similar to one where you had a stressful experience will do it," she said. Or it could be a sound or smell triggering the reaction, Kadue said.

"We can be totally oblivious as to whatís causing the stress," Safyre said. "Itís all about investigating. Pay attention to how youíre responding. And you have to be very observant" about whatís happening at the time.


Secondhand stress is an occupational hazard for some professions, including counseling, medicine and even bartending. Itís such a concern at the CenterPoint Massage & Shiatsu School in St. Louis Park, Minn., that teaching how to avoid it "is part of our whole curriculum," said owner/instructor Ed Pelava.

"A lot of people come in for a massage with stress issues," he said. "Transference is a very big issue. We tell our students over and over, ĎDonít let them dump that on you.í Itís important to respond (to the person getting the massage); you do want to show the client that you care about them. But you also have to be vigilant on that. Donít absorb it."

Thatís easier said than done, he admitted. "We also teach the students clearing exercises and relaxing techniques that they can use between clients to remain grounded," he said.

If you wonít address stress issues for yourself, at least do it for everyone else, Sood said. Stress we donít deal with gets passed on to the people around us.

"If you take your stress home, your family is going to feel it," he said. "Donít let that person throw you into a tailspin."



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