Second hand STRESS- is it contagious?


Recent studies suggest yes, stress is contagious. It travels in social circles- if we are stressed, it can affect our friends, our families and even strangers near us.

I remember being on a BOLT bus getting ready to leave to NYC. Suddenly the driver went A-wall on a poor passenger who placed his bag on an empty seat. The driver was flailing his arms, swearing at the passenger and screaming at the top of his lungs for the passenger to get off the bus.  I was so stressed out, I felt sick to my stomach! As the passenger got off the bus – so did I. I had absorbed that second hand stress and my body and mind were feeling it.

Post Doc, Sarah Waters, Tessa West from NYU and research scientist Wendy Berry Mendes  from the Emotion Health and Physiology Laboratory at the University of San Francisco have studied how mother’s stress levels affect their babies. In their study, mother’s stress levels were measured with an EKG to see if their babies absorbed their stress signals. As it turned out, their baby’s sympathetic responses did match their mother’s stress levels. If mothers were more stressed, their heart rates went up as did the baby’s.  Link:

Imagine, there are even some occupations such as counseling, medicine, massage therapists and bartending that have to deal with second hand stress on a daily basis.

Three ways to handle second hand stress is to:

  1. Avoid stress and stressful situations (easier said than done).
  2. Determine how you will react to stress- Instead of letting stress stick to you like Velcro, just imagine, you are made of Teflon! Stess just slides off.
  3. Take care of your stress through self-care such as meditation or other coping mechanisms which work best for you.

Next time someone mentions “Hey, that person stresses me out! ” take them seriously- as the research shows this is a very true statement!


Ref: Water, S.F., West T.V. and Berry Mendes,W., (January, 2014). Stress Contagion: Physiological Covariation Between Mothers and Infants, Psychological Science.