Secondhand stress: how to stop absorbing other people’s anxiety

Is absorbing other people’s anxiety holding you back from hitting your goals? We pick up on emotions more easily than we realise, and secondhand stress can quickly hamper our health.

By

Workplace wellness podcast with the UKCP

Is absorbing other people’s anxiety holding you back from hitting your goals? We pick up on emotions more easily than we realise, and secondhand stress can quickly hamper our health.

Feeling overwhelmed without due cause? Secondhand stress is tension and pressure we experience due to other people’s behaviour. Emotions are contagious – just like the flu, we can actually “catch” and absorb what others are feeling. It’s a remarkable ability we have as human beings, as we are hard-wired to empathise with those around us. 

Connecting with others and caring for them is key to our survival, so it makes sense we can take on other people’s positive and negative feelings as well. ‘When those around us are feeling stressed, our instinct is to be alerted to this and to respond as if these are cues of danger,’ says Avy Joseph, an experienced cognitive behaviour therapist and director of the College of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies.

What is secondhand stress?

So, how can stress impact our health and fitness goals? ‘It’s important to think about what we mean by “stress” because stress can be “healthy stress” or “unhealthy stress”,’ says Joseph. ‘Unhealthy stress is called anxiety while healthy stress is called concern. Anxiety is an emotion provoked by an unhealthy or irrational belief or attitude about either a perceived or a real threat or danger to you and to what matters to you. Concern is the healthy version of anxiety.’

When you are stuck in a state of anxiety, your thoughts may be preoccupied with “what if” and you are likely to avoid or seek assurance and reassurance or do something to get rid of the feelings quickly, ultimately not really solving it or getting better in the long term.
 
‘To be stuck in a state of anxiety, day in and day out, impacts on your health and fitness goals for sure,’ says Joseph. ‘Long-term anxiety alone can impact your heart health, weight, increase blood pressure and cause gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, headaches, loss of libido, fatigue, muscle aches and pains to name but a few.’

Therefore, you are more likely to engage in behaviours that sabotage your goals such as avoidance, over-exercising, drinking too much, eating too much or abstaining from food. This is hardly the ideal state for focusing on goals in a positive way. In essence, anxiety is negative goal setting, and long-term anxiety can also increase your risks of developing depression and other anxiety-related disorders such as panic disorders and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).   
 
Spot the symptoms of secondhand stress

You can be anxious about anything, and you can have multiple anxieties. Secondhand anxiety is what some people call anxiety about anxiety, and anxiety about other people’s feelings. And we can make ourselves anxious about anything. 
 
To recognise anxiety, check two things:

  • your thoughts and 
  • what your feelings are telling you to do 

If you are experiencing anxiety about anxiety, your thoughts will be focused on the feeling of anxiety itself. You may think, I shouldn’t be feeling anxious because nothing bad has happened or is happening. What you may feel like doing is stopping the feeling of anxiety quickly and you may feel like seeking assurance, avoiding your feelings rather than accepting them, you feel like calming your feelings with alcohol, over-exercising or comfort eating. Your mind will be preoccupied with getting rid of the uncomfortable feeling.

If you are feeling anxious about someone else’s feelings, then your thoughts will be focused on the other person’s feelings and their consequences on you or on your ability to cope or help. You may feel like giving too much assurance, or you may feel like avoiding expressing your opinions and feelings, and you may choose to act unassertively. You may feel like you are the cause of their emotions and then make yourself feel guilty.

How to deal with secondhand stress

What positive strategies can you employ for secondhand stress whilst still supporting loved ones with their anxieties? ‘Secondhand anxiety is provoked by our own unhealthy beliefs,’ says Joseph. ‘Unhealthy beliefs are dogmatic, rigid, absolutist in nature. They are based on “must”, “have to”, “got to”.’

For example, you might feel as if…

‘I must be always in control of my feelings, it’s awful when I can’t control my feelings, I can’t stand not being able to control my feelings, it proves I’m weak or worthless.’

‘I must not feel anxious and uncomfortable when I see my loved ones anxious and unhappy is the end of the world bad, I cannot stand seeing my loved ones unhappy. I must be able to help my loved one to feel happy, if I can’t it’s awful, I cannot bear it and proves I’m a failure.’
 
It’s our dogmatic demands that provoke our feelings of anxiety. This is at the heart of solving our emotional problems. It’s called the ‘principle of emotional responsibility.’ We are responsible for our feelings, and we are not the cause of other people’s feelings. This can be challenging because of expressions like ‘you make me feel anxious’ and ‘people’s disapproval makes me anxious’ are common. People even ask, ‘what makes you anxious?’. The correct answer is ‘I make me anxious’. We can then learn to make ourselves un-anxious. This in turn helps us to become emotional healthy and happy.

How to cope

Eliminate avoidance.  We tend to avoid feelings, thoughts, physiological sensations, assertive behaviours, mental images.
 
Develop resiliency to discomfort.  Sit with your feelings.  They are your body’s natural electricity.  Allow them.  Use mindfulness by observing your feelings rather than relaxation techniques.  Relaxation techniques to solve anxiety about anxiety will be counterproductive.
 
Accept that other people’s feelings are not within your control.  Work on your reactions to other people’s feelings.
 
Be compassionate.  Be kind to yourself and accept that we are humans and we have feelings.  This is natural.  Acceptance is the first step to healing yourself from being stuck in anxiety.
 
Be consistent and repeat.  Repeat the new way of thinking and the new behaviour in a consistent manner.  This will turn into a habit at some point, and it becomes your usual reaction. Changing attitudes and behaviour starts uncomfortably because it’s not a habit yet.

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