Secondhand Stress: The Signs You're Catching Your Worry From Someone Else

Life can be stressful (we know, the understatement of the century). On top of all the headaches in our own lives, it's easy to get caught up in the stress of those around us. You arrive at work with your coffee, ready to start your day, when your boss huffs past you, complaining on the phone before even saying good morning to you. Your calm morning has just turned into a tense one. You come home at the end of the day, ready to relax and unwind, when your child tells you they need supplies for a huge school project due tomorrow. Does this sound familiar? You might have a case of secondhand stress.


Of course, we want to be there for our loved ones, and it's normal to be worried about the people in our lives. But it's okay to admit when it can become too much for us. Identifying the ways secondhand stress shows up in your life is the first step to managing it. Here are a few of the signs.

The stress hits you out of nowhere

Even when things are going your way, you still feel anxious for a reason you can't quite pinpoint. Something just feels off. This could be a sign that someone else is passing on their worries to you. When we're stressed about our own issues, we can usually figure out why we are anxious and work to find solutions. The difficult part about secondhand stress is that it can be brought on by factors out of our control.


The person stressing you out may not realize they are doing it. One of the most fascinating aspects of the human stress response is that it can be passed on without words. When this unpleasant feeling is coming on, our body releases the hormone cortisol, which we can then perspire and release into the air (via research published in PLOS One) — essentially making stress contagious. We sometimes even smell differently when we're stressed. Even if your friend is stressing to you about something that has nothing to do with you, you're probably carrying their stress with you throughout the day.

Feeling disorganized or forgetful

When we're stressed out by other people, the tidiest and orderly of us can still find ourselves in a mess, struggling to keep up with our own schedules and to-do lists. It can be difficult to keep it together when so much is on our shoulders. Did you forget an important date that you would never typically miss? Are you finding yourself unable to keep up with your messy office space? If so, this is another sign of secondhand stress in your life.


A cluttered space can create an even more cluttered mind, thus creating more stress. When it feels like you are losing control, a clean and organized space may help you grab ahold of that stress and minimize it little by little. Something as small as putting laundry away or taking out the trash can give you a drop of tranquility during a hectic day. 

Feeling resentment

If you find yourself feeling angry or bitter towards someone you usually never have problems with, they may be causing you secondhand stress. We all have moments where we take out our frustrations on others, but doing so too often can be detrimental to our relationships. Sometimes our partners or friends come to us catastrophizing about a situation at work, and their negative energy feeds into our own. When this becomes a pattern, we may start to feel angry with the people in our lives because of how stressed they make us feel.


According to Psychology Today, stress can make people irritable and hostile, which can increase the likelihood of conflict in relationships. No one deserves to be treated poorly because they are dealing with another person's stress. While you may want to be there for people, it's okay to let them know when their actions are negatively impacting your life. 

How to manage secondhand stress

It's a wonderful thing when we can confide in each other, but it's important that we respect people's boundaries when it comes to sharing stress. We're not always in a positive headspace to manage our own stress in addition to the stress of others around us. If someone in your life only talks about their problems without ever asking about you, it may help to have an honest conversation about how this makes you feel. Be transparent with the people causing your stress, and don't be afraid to set healthy boundaries.


You can find ways that work for you to release your stress. Sometimes it helps to do things that bring you outside of your mind, especially after a long day. Many people find it helpful to write out their thoughts in a journal, spend time with loved ones, unplug from their phones and social media, or take walks outside. Psychiatrist and professor Dr. Sheila Marcus, who is constantly dealing with other people's stress, tells HuffPost that exercising daily helps reduce her stress after a long day. Even on your most overwhelming days, you are more than capable of keeping your stress in check.