Debra Safyre was standing in line waiting to order lunch when she was hit by a sudden wave of anxiety.
“There was no reason for me to be triggered that way,” she said. “Then I noticed the person in front of me. She was jittering so badly, shaking so badly, that I was responding to her stress — and I didn’t even talk to her.”
Her experience was not unusual.
Secondhand stress — tension that we pick up from the people and activities around us — is a natural defense mechanism that helped keep our ancestors alive, said Dr. Amit Sood, an expert on stress at the Mayo Clinic. But as soon as we pick up that tension, we risk becoming carriers, passing it on to any friends, family members or co-workers — and, yes, even strangers — we encounter.
“Stress travels in social networks,” he said. “It is highly, highly contagious.”
Fortunately for Safyre, a former nurse and founder of Safyre Catalyst, a Richfield, Minn.-based company focusing on personal and group energy management, she quickly realized where her surprise anxiety was coming from and was able to move away from its source.
“When you hit a tuning fork, everything around it starts vibrating with it. It’s the same thing with stress. If stress is a very strong vibration around you, you’re going to start reacting to it.”
The impact that secondhand stress has on us has only recently been appreciated by psychologists, said Dr. Berendina Numan, co-founder of the Center for Counseling and Stress Management, with offices in Minneapolis and Minnetonka, Minn.
“It’s been only the last 10 years” that the topic has been explored in much depth, she said. “There hasn’t been enough research to know all the answers about secondhand stress.”
Doctors do know that stress in small doses is essentially a good thing, Sood said. It’s part of the body’s warning system that creates the fight-or-flight response and generates a surge of energy that helps us deal with a crisis. But excessive or prolonged stress can lead to health issues ranging from headaches to heart problems.
Protecting oneself from secondhand stress begins with identifying its causes, said Dana Kadue, owner of Life Flow Coaching in Minneapolis.
“The first step is awareness of the things around me that create stress in my life,” said Kadue, who teaches a class called “From Stress to Well-Being” for the Pathways Minneapolis health resource center. “It’s all about self-awareness, discovering when the stress shows up.”
Start the investigation with who’s around at the time, suggested Sood, who wrote the recently published “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.”
“Many of us have partners, supervisors, colleagues or neighbors who are stress-provoking,” he said. “How do I recognize these people? These are the people I feel judged by too much. I feel anxious when I’m meeting them. I try to avoid being with them. I find these people unpredictable. They often have high expectations, and I feel like I have to be perfect with them; they are very rigid. And I’ve often found that many of these people have different moral values than mine.”
Once you’ve identified the problem people, you have three basic courses of action: You can change them. You can get away from them. Or you can learn to protect yourself from them.
The first two have limited applicability. A person might be open to constructive criticism about his behavior, but it must be presented in a way that doesn’t put him on the defensive, Sood said. Even then, there’s no guarantee he’ll be responsive.
As for getting away from the irritant, that’s not always a viable option, either, especially for someone whose stress is coming from a boss or co-worker in a job he doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to leave.
Which brings us to the third option: learning how to avoid falling victim.
“Stress resilience is something we can work on,” Kadue said. “It’s about responding to the stress rather than reacting to it.”
Both Kadue and Safyre recommend finding something supportive — it can be a photograph, a memory or an object like a bracelet — that generates pleasant thoughts that allow you to ground yourself during a stress-inducing situation.
“Stay in touch with it so you’re not lost in their energy,” Safyre said. “If you have a confrontation, tell yourself, ‘I’m not going to allow this to happen.’”
In his book, Sood outlines a number of coping mechanisms.
“One of them is that you can imagine yourself wearing either a Teflon or a Velcro vest,” he said. “If it’s Velcro, everything that’s thrown at you will stick. But if it’s Teflon, everything slides off. So if you have to have a confrontation (with a stress-inducer), make sure you have your Teflon vest on. You can’t give that person the key to your heart.”
The source of the stress is not always a person, Numan said. “Sometimes just walking into a place that is set up similar to one where you had a stressful experience will do it,” she said. Or it could be a sound or smell triggering the reaction, Kadue said.
“We can be totally oblivious as to what’s causing the stress,” Safyre said. “It’s all about investigating. Pay attention to how you’re responding. And you have to be very observant” about what’s happening at the time.