Stress is the body’s natural response to a perceived challenge or threat, whether real or imagined. When we observe someone experiencing an emotion, certain neurons in our brain are activated. As a result, we can  emulate their stress and emotions.

According to the American Psychological Association stress has reached all-time highs. In 2022, 27% of adults in the United States said they’re too stressed to function, 34% said that stress is overwhelming most of the time. If you’re not sure why you are feeling stress, are pessimistic, tired, or irritable but not sure why you may be experiencing secondhand stress. Second-hand stress is stress that occurs as the result of someone being around another person who is stressed.

A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that when people were asked to perform a stressful task in the presence of someone else who appeared to be stressed, their cortisol levels increased much more than when they performed the task alone. While there are no specific statistics on second-hand stress, researchers have found that stress is contagious, and that people are affected by the stress levels of other people around them. Second-hand stress can have a negative impact on a person’s mental and physical health. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of it and take appropriate action to help manage it when it does occur. This might mean practicing stress-management techniques, setting boundaries, or seeking support from other people.

There are some common indicators that suggest someone may be experiencing second-hand stress according to an article for CPD online. These include physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and digestive problems. Emotional symptoms like feeling anxious, irritable, overwhelmed, trouble concentrating, or having a sense of dread. Other indicators may also be behavioral like becoming withdrawn, avoiding certain situations, difficulty sleeping or changes in appetite.

If there is a particular scenario or setting where the second-hand stress comes from, it can help to create a positive environment. Whether at home or work, creating a culture of open communication and encouraging positive interactions is a good idea. Another way to try to prevent second-hand stress is to encourage mindfulness, meditation, or yoga.

If the second-hand stress is occurring in the workplace or somewhere in which you have to designate tasks, it can be useful to set clear expectations and guidelines. This helps to reduce uncertainty and stress for those doing the tasks and, ultimately, will prevent second-hand stress for you. Encouraging healthy boundaries is also important as this can prevent stress from spreading through the organization. Boundaries can be things like encouraging people to take breaks away from their desks, especially during lunchtime.

According to the Harvard Business Review, emotions are contagious. If you work with people who are happy and optimistic, you’re more likely to feel the same. The flip side is true too: If your colleagues are constantly stressed out, you’re more likely to suffer.

Secondhand stress is nearly inescapable. “We live in a hyperconnected world, which means we are more at risk for negative social contagion than at any point in history,” Shawn Achor, a lecturer and researcher, and the author of The Happiness Advantage, said. “Secondhand stress comes from verbal, nonverbal, and written communication, which means we can pick it up even via cellphone.”

But the good news is that we are not helpless, saidSusan David, a founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. Learning specific skills and making changes in your environment are ways to cope with it, David added.

Achor suggests surrounding yourself with positive people. Positive emotions can be just as contagious as negative ones. Try to promote optimism in the ranks, too. “Most people make the mistake of trying to fix the most stressed-out, negative person in the office,” Anchor said. Instead, he recommends acting as a role model by exuding positivity for “the people in the middle who could be tipped positive or negative.”

According to an online article published in British magazine Psychologies, those who experience secondhand stress also risk feeling guilty or anxious about others’ feelings due to an inability to cope or help. When this happens remember, stress is not the only voice in the room. The article suggests being compassionate while learning to accept that other people’s feelings are not within your control and the only thing you in your control is how you react to others and outside stressors.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Hilary Valdez is a freelancer living in Tokyo, Japan. He is an experienced Mental Health professional and Resiliency Trainer. Valdez is a former Marine and has worked with the military most of his career and most recently worked at Camp Zama as a Master Resiliency Trainer. Valdez now has a private practice and publishes books on social and psychological issues. His books are available on Amazon and for Kindle. Learn more about Valdez and contact him at his website or email ( Follow his YouTube channel Hilary’s Quick Talk for more insights.

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