It can be easy to get swept up in other people’s problems or in situations that are largely out of your control.
“At a fundamental level, we are social creatures. We pick up on the cues of other people,” said Tim Bono, a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences and the assistant dean in arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
You’ll likely react how those around you are reacting in certain situations — whether that’s ducking when you see someone else duck or getting mad when your friend is upset.
“If lots of people around us are responding to an event with sadness or fear or distress, we pick up on that ourselves and we implicitly tend to adopt those behaviors, because if other people are responding this way, that must be the appropriate way to respond,” Bono said.
When it comes to other people’s stress, this can take on an extreme form, which many people refer to as secondhand stress. According to Bono, secondhand stress is not an official clinical term. Instead, it captures other phenomena that are well-documented in behavioral sciences, he said.
“I think that it, to me, falls broadly in the domain of mental health and how we respond when we see another person who’s experiencing distress,” Bono said. He added that the phrase recalls the popular term “compassion fatigue” or newer but just as poignant concepts like “empathic distress” or “empathic concern.”
Specifically, secondhand stress is “the consequence of being exhausted from taking on the suffering of others or helping them cope or being a resource for them,” Bono said.
Alicia Brown, a psychotherapist with Grow Therapy in South Florida, agreed and added that secondhand stress can occur when “you become stressed and overwhelmed trying to support [someone].”
Secondhand stress can also happen when stress builds up to a level where you can’t articulate it, according to Elizabeth (Birdie) Shirtcliff, a research professor at the University of Oregon. “It builds up as sort of tension, and that tension — the not talking about it, the not expressing it — that’s the piece that gets under the skin,” Shirtcliff noted.
This can happen when you’re so worried about another person that you can’t talk about it. “The stress is a form of stress that’s really difficult to talk about it ― that’s the stress that has a physiological impact,” Shirtcliff said.
In other words, secondhand stress is “an extreme form of empathy,” as Bono put it, or when you absorb tension coming from another person. Here are the signs to look out for and what to do if you are experiencing this form of stress.
You’re overly attentive to others.
According to Shirtcliff, if you find that you are overly attentive to cues about your loved one’s safety, you may be dealing with secondhand stress.
“An example would be if your loved one stands up too fast and they have Parkinson’s, and you’re immediately rushing in to make sure they’re OK,” even when they are OK, she said. This demonstrates vigilance, even when that high level of vigilance is not necessary.
Additionally, she said, research shows that caregivers — generally, mothers — have high spikes in the stress hormone cortisol when their child is going through a stressor. And these spikes in cortisol that the mothers experience are higher than the spikes in the children going through the stressful experience.
You have difficulty communicating.
As mentioned above, many people dealing with secondhand stress find their situation difficult to talk about. If you can’t articulate the problem and why it’s bothering you, you may be dealing with this issue, according to Brown.
She said this could look like the inability to explain why the stressful situation impacts you on such a major level or why you are so worried about your loved one. Overall, it may just feel like a huge problem with no solution.
In order to cope at all, you have to be able to recognize the stressor or trigger, along with the emotions connected to it, Brown added. If you can’t talk about it, you won’t be able to cope.
You may start to withdraw.
Bono said that withdrawing from your daily tasks or from certain situations because of stress-induced anxiety and sadness is a sign of secondhand stress as well.
“You’re so overcome with anxiety or sadness that you can’t carry out your daily tasks,” Bono said.
So, things like not being able to focus at work or struggling to run necessary errands could be evidence of this heightened level of stress.
You might also feel physical symptoms.
Signs of depression, fatigue and burnout are all red flags for secondhand stress as well, Shirtcliff said. Scan for problems like excess exhaustion, numbness, headaches or feeling emotionally heavy.
Additionally, you may find that your mind is racing and you’re constantly thinking about your loved one (but not in a good or romantic way), she noted.
Set boundaries to help combat your secondhand stress.
“A huge thing … is setting boundaries with yourself,” Brown said. “It’s OK to not be able to help someone if you aren’t able to help yourself.” And that isn’t selfish behavior, she stressed.
What’s more, don’t feel like you have to be the savior in these kinds of situations, Brown added. You can’t be everything to everyone.
“It’s OK to take a break from people” and to admit that you don’t have the emotional capacity to handle their situation in a healthy way, she noted. Boundaries can help you manage your own stress before it gets out of control.
You also should find someone safe to confide in to help you cope with secondhand stress.
Whether a therapist or best friend, if you are struggling with secondhand stress, you should open up to someone.
“Practice some self-care and give yourself permission to articulate the stress that you’re feeling, and don’t discount that it’s not happening to you, that it can still affect you,” Shirtcliff said.
She noted that high levels of unspoken stress can affect your immune system and cause your stress hormones to soar — which can cause complications like heart attacks, high blood pressure, headaches and more, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“[You’re] carrying around all this worry silently and really feeling very lonely,” Shirtcliff said. “And loneliness is one of the biggest killers out there, honestly.”
To combat that loneliness, find someone to share your experience with.
While it can be hard to allow yourself to seek help when someone else is the one going through the worst of a situation, it’s still necessary.
“[Just] because someone needs more help doesn’t mean you yourself don’t as well or wouldn’t benefit from it,” Shirtcliff said.