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Contagious Stress:
Is Your Stress Impacting Your Kids, Your Coworkers and
Your Relationships?


Stress is often regarded as a personal feeling. Although typically caused by external factors, we tend to deal with stress on a very internal basis. But your stress does not stop at you …

On the contrary, like a virulent flu or a wisp of secondhand smoke, stress can quickly circulate through a room, impacting virtually everyone nearby whether they like it or not. In fact, “secondhand stress” can be even worse than your own stress because while you can do something about the circumstances making you stressed, you’re often powerless against the stress of others.

If your kids seem overly anxious and tense, take a moment to consider if YOUR stress could be to blame.

"Other people's excessive or ongoing stress pollutes the environment," Brad Gilbreath, PhD, associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, told the Ladies Home Journal (LHJ). "It erodes civility and causes anxiety. A stressed person is a loose cannon. You never know what is going to set him off when, and that's enormously unsettling."

You’re Most Impacted by Stress of Those Closest to You, and Vice Versa

If your spouse is going through trouble at work, your teen is frustrated with her chemistry class and your officemate is dealing with a chronic health problem, their stress will easily rub off on you.

Yes, you can actually “catch” their stress.

Likewise, if you’re often in an anxious, stress-filled state, your family, friends and coworkers will not only notice, they may begin to feel the effects of your stress.

Take, for example, getting your kids ready for back-to-school. If your 6-year-old is scared to death of leaving home for the day, or your 10-year-old is worried about keeping up with homework and grades, it could very well be that these are manifestations of your stress.

Your fears, anxieties and trepidations can easily rub off on your kids, who will absorb them readily and make them their own.

Likewise, women, who tend to be caretakers, tend to easily take on others’ stress and are often exposed on a daily basis while playing a nurturing role to their kids, spouse and friends. The effects of such secondhand stress, research is revealing, are very serious … and very real.

Health Impacts of Secondhand Stress

You probably already know that chronic stress is bad for your health -- people with chronic stress are more likely to suffer from age-related diseases including Alzheimer's disease, major depression, mental decline, osteoporosis and metabolic syndrome.

If problems are not dealt with, secondhand stress can quickly impact all members of the family, and even extend to coworkers and friends as well.

Stress can also trigger diabetes …or worsen it if you already have it, because when your body is stressed it releases stress hormones that automatically release extra sugar into your bloodstream (which is, of course, not a good thing for someone with diabetes who is already struggling with high blood sugar).

But stress from those around you can be equally damaging to your health. As LHJ reported:

  • Health care workers who take care of trauma victims often experience muscle tension, fatigue, insomnia and depression.
  • Infants whose parents are under chronic stress are more likely to develop asthma and autoantibodies that increase their risk of diabetes, according to research from the National Jewish Medical and Research Center at the University of Colorado.
  • Men whose wives come home from work upset often are twice as likely to develop heart disease as men whose wives come home free from stress, according to a study by Elaine D. Eaker, ScD, of Chili, Wisconsin.
  • Girls who regularly talk to their friends about their problems excessively are more likely to develop depression and anxiety.

Research also shows clearly that your stress can easily lead to “tension spillover.” In other words, if you and your spouse have a heated argument that is left unresolved, you’re more likely to have tense interactions with your kids, and probably your coworkers too, the next day. Likewise, after a tough day at work, you’re more likely to snap at your kids or spouse after you get home, which in turn will make them in a negative, tense mood as well.

This stress can quickly spiral out of control until your family and work life are embroiled in a big ball of stress that can be difficult to break out of. As Sonia J. Lupien, PhD, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Douglas Hospital/McGill University, in Montreal, told LHJ:

Stress hormones affect how you think, making you see situations as worse than they are. You may assume that the other person is stressed and react in anticipation. Then just hearing the sound of your husband's keys in the door can trigger your stress response, even if he's not stressed anymore.”

10 Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Infectious Stress

Dealing with your own stress is relatively straightforward – identify the source of the stress and do what you can to neutralize it while taking time to regroup physically and emotionally. So how do you protect yourself from the stress you’re exposed to on others’ behalves?

10. Show empathy, but don’t internalize others’ struggles. Empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else's shoes -- to understand them, to feel their pain, to take on their concerns, worries and regrets, as well as their joys, their elations and their excitement. As you do this, set limits so you don’t begin to feel overwhelmed by someone else’s problems.

9. Separate “good stress” from “bad stress”… then choose wisely. To a point, “stress is actually good for you”. It provides a burst of energy, a boost to your immune system and allows you to accomplish more. The key is to harness stress for your own benefit and success, which lies in knowing when you’re nearing that tipping point of good to bad stress -- you can read more about it here.

If stress begins to feel overwhelming, Staying Healthy in a Stressful World, the highly praised CD by Dr. Peter Reznik, one of the most respected mind/body integrative therapists of our time, can help. The program will actually help you to embark on a practice for transforming your stress into life-enhancing experiences.

8. Eliminate the stressors you can. If you constantly get secondhand stress from a neighbor or friend, minimize the time you spend around them. If the stress is coming from a spouse or family member, have a frank discussion about how their stress (or their reactions to the stress) is impacting you and disrupting the household. 

Suggest ways to refocus and convert negative stress factors into positive actions and activities that replace commiserating. Help them seek the positive in every moment.

No matter how dismal things may seem, focus on what you want or need to accomplish to transform “bad stress” into positive “good stress.”   

7. Think positively as much as possible. Studies show that people who have a bias toward noticing the negative -- i.e. you view the glass as “half empty” instead of “half full” -- are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress. Click here to read 12 tips for practicing a more positive lifestyle.

Try to keep this in mind when you’re stressed too. Try NOT to bring home job stress to your kids and spouse, or let your own fears impact the way your kids think and feel.

6. Build strong relationships with positive people. Just as stress can rub off on you, so can feelings of optimism and joy.  So make it a point to surround yourself with happy positive-outcome-focused people, let some of the happiness and celebratory activities soak in, then share it with others.

5. Take time to relax. This may sound easy, but how many of you reading this actually schedule time into your day to relax and enjoy life? How about blocking out a weekly or monthly girls’ or guys’ night just to de-stress? Your body and mind know how to relax -- you just need to give them "permission" to do so. So give yourself permission to take time just for you.

This is easier said than done, of course, so for those of you who need a little help, we highly recommend the Pure Relaxation: Guided Meditations for Body, Mind & Spirit CD by respected meditation expert Mary Maddux .

The guided meditations and music on this CD calm your mind, soothe your emotions and create a state of deep relaxation in your body.

4. Laugh more. Having a good laugh can make stress melt away in an instant. Plus, it decreases blood pressure and heart rate, increases oxygen in the blood and creates an enzyme that helps protect your stomach from the effects of stress.

3. Breathe deeply. Deep breathing is one of the easiest and most natural -- yet most often overlooked -- stress relief methods out there. Take in a deep breath through your nose, then exhale through your mouth, counting for about four seconds on each phase (in and out). Repeat this about 20 or 30 times.

When you start to breathe deeply on a regular basis, you'll notice how little you were actually breathing before, and how taking deep breathes, which increases oxygen levels in your body, is naturally calming.

2. Exercise. Exercising increases the levels of endorphins in your body, which stimulate your immune system, reduce stress and put you in a better mood. Many of our SixWise Team Members use the DVD programs nearly every day to reduce stress and to keep the balanced mind, body, spirit and focus that we need and value.

The continuous flow of movements and slow, methodic nature of yoga and other gentle exercises (like Tai Chi) blend seamlessly with “Tri-Core Power Training” in the program and are excellent for relieving stresses that have accumulated during the day.

1. Get plenty of high-quality sleep. When you sleep, the stress hormone, cortisol, is lowered, but when you are sleep deprived, cortisol levels rise. Further, your energy levels will go down and you'll be less able to cope with any secondhand stress that comes your way during your day.

If stress is keeping you up at night, the Sleep Easy CD -- with music by a renowned meditation music composer with 20 years experience -- will help you find deep rest and sleep.

Even sneaking off for a 20-minute "power nap" can leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take on new challenges. Studies have found that 20 minutes is just the right amount of time to de-stress -- sleep too much longer and you could end up feeling groggy. So grab and alarm clock and head off for some quick stress-busting zzz's.

Not only will these tips greatly help to reduce your own internal stress, but they’ll help you deal with secondhand “infectious” stress too. As an added bonus, the less stressed you are, the less likely you’ll be to send secondhand stress to your friends, family and coworkers, which is a great benefit in and of itself.

SixWise Ways!
SixWise Says ...

Secondhand stress can come from TV, especially upsetting news programs, too. So do yourself a favor: turn OFF the TV and turn on a soothing jazz CD instead or custom mind/body meditation CD. Believe us, you won't miss the shock jocks, screaming morning and afternoon DJs, local news about murders and overplayed commercial segments one bit.

Recommended Reading

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress? How to Lose Weight & Be Well With Good Stress Levels

New Research Reveals How Stress Can Kill

Sources Is Stress Contagious? The Health Risks of Secondhand Stress August 13, 2007

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