What Is Secondary Stress?

Have you ever walked down the street and inhaled someone else’s smoke? We call that secondhand smoke, and research shows even though we may not be the ones smoking the cigarette, the effects can be devastating. 

In the field of stress management, we often reference a similar concept. Did you know that feelings of stress, negativity and uncertainty are actually contagious?

We’ve most likely all experienced this at one point or another. 

Perhaps you’ve ran into a friend who’s panicking about a test or interview they have coming up, and all of a sudden you have the jitters. Or you pick up the phone to call a friend, but they only want to rant about how much their husband’s bugging them, and you end the phone call feeling tired and drained. Or, on the other hand, you might run into a friend you just received some fantastic news, and their energy and excitement about the opportunity rubs off on you, leaving you with a little pep in your step.

The thing is, as human beings, we can quite literally pick up on and absorb one another’s emotions, just like we can take in secondhand smoke.

When you take on another person’s stress, experts refer to this phenomenon as secondhand stress, or secondary stress.

This is due to these teeny-tiny parts in our brain that share emotions, which scientists call mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are what allow us to emphasize with the feelings that someone else is having. 

On the one hand, this is a great thing, because we’re able to recognize what others are feeling and show up with empathy. But on the other hand, when we pick up on other people’s emotions, taking them in and absorbing them, it can actually impact our stress levels and our OWN nervous system.