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How Secondhand Stress Affects Us

Have tried and tested methods for stress management

By Rumeet Billan

Have you ever spent the day with a friend, or colleague who is constantly complaining, venting or otherwise negative? Chances are, it took a significant toll on your mood and overall well being. They may have been sharing what happened at work, and then suddenly, before you were really aware of it, their negativity became yours and you left the interaction feeling exhausted, frustrated, and/or drained.

How did it happen? According to a leading psychologist, what many consider harmless vent sessions are not harmless at all. Our brains are hardwired to pick up on the emotions around us. It’s one way our minds support us in fitting into our environments and finding a sense of belonging. It’s called mirroring, and it’s a practice that many of us have seen in action. Think of yawning or a co-workers enthusiasm. It’s a common expression of the English language to refer to certain emotions or actions, like laughs or enthusiasm as infectious or contagious, but according to science, it’s more than just a linguistic expression. Our bodies mirror back the emotions and energetics in our surroundings through a network of mirror neurons. It’s these neurons that are also responsible for our ability to empathize and relate to others.

New research shows that this concept of emotional mirroring also relates to stress and negativity. According to Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio researchers from the University of California, Riverside, when someone in our visual field is displaying symptoms of anxiety or is otherwise highly expressive, you are likely to experience these emotions and have them negatively impact your cognitive function. It’s important to note that researchers found secondhand emotions impact others equally, whether the emotion is being verbally or non-verbally communicated.

Additional research showed that 26% of people showed higher levels of stress hormones just by seeing someone exhibit signs of stress. How likely secondhand stress is to impact you also depends on your relationship with the individual. For example, 40% of people who witnessed their romantic partner in stressful situations displayed signs of secondhand stress. Whereas only 24% of people who witnessed a complete stranger in a stressful event experienced secondhand stress.

As we become a society that’s more cognizant of mental health, it’s imperative that we pay attention to sources of secondhand stress and how they affect us, because we carry stress with us even after leaving the environment. A stressful morning commute or witnessing an aggressive confrontation while getting your morning coffee easily translates into how you walk into your office, treat your co-workers and respond to work projects. It’s important to begin to recognize and mitigate the secondhand stress, so that how you show up in the world is a reflection of who you are, rather than simply as a response to someone else’s stress.

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Rumeet Billan

Dr. Rumeet Billan is an award-winning, internationally recognized entrepreneur, learning architect, speaker, author and humanitarian. Rumeet is the CEO and owner of Women of Influence+, and completed her PhD at the University of Toronto. She has led groundbreaking research and has designed and facilitated programs, courses, and training sessions across industries and sectors. Learn more at