Your Four-Part Plan To Combat Secondhand Stress

Venting anger not only makes you more upset, it potentially contaminates those around you.

Your Four-Part Plan To Combat Secondhand Stress
[Photo: Flickr user PhyreWorX]

We know that secondhand smoke can be just as detrimental to our health as lighting one up ourselves, but there is another kind of toxic fume that’s also harmful to your well-being, and you may be absorbing it without knowing it.


It’s secondhand stress, and it’s transmitted through nonverbal expressions of our coworkers. It can throw those negative emotions our way, making us feel anxious and overwhelmed, too, researchers found.

Another recent study found that even when people were exposed to a stranger who was experiencing a stressful situation, just observing their hand-wringing or hair pulling through a one-way mirror or a live video feed prompted a cortisol rush in more than a quarter of them (26%).
Then there is a hormone we excrete when we’re under pressure. A study of the chemosignals of stress indicates that while subtle, your body odor does change in response to different emotional states. And it affects both the neural and behavioral states of those around you.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since research has also shown that selfishness and bad behavior can go viral in the workplace. We are much less likely to be helpful when we perceive others aren’t contributing equally to a project or toward a goal. And blowing off steam about it can just make others around us more anxious, according to Jeffrey Lohr, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas. He told Fast Company, “Venting anger is an emotional expression. It’s similar to emotional farting in a closed area.” Not only does it make you angrier, it potentially contaminates those around you.


Exposure to secondhand stress can happen anywhere, not just in the next cubicle. Shawn Anchor gave this example in the

When your taxi driver honks angrily, you can carry his anxiety all the way to work. When a boss hurriedly stalks into a room, you can pick up her stress as you try to present your ideas. Even bankers on trading floors separated by glass walls can pick up the panic of a person across the room working in a separate market just by seeing their nonverbals.

This happens because our brains are hardwired to sense threats in our surroundings. And that includes our virtual surroundings, too. Remember the Facebook experiment that played with the news feed to elicit emotions from users?

“In such a highly connected world, we need to find ways to improve our emotional immune system,” writes Anchor, “otherwise we risk the negative effects of secondhand stress.”

Here is his four-part prescription to deal with the charged emotions of others.

Stop Fighting

Anchor’s research found that when subjects stopped struggling and tried to keep a positive frame of mind, they experienced a 23% drop in the negative effects of stress. Anchor suggests using others’ stress as an opportunity to feel compassion or as a challenge to help that person become more positive.


It also helps to reframe the way you think about stress—it’s not always a bad thing, according to Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong, it only means that something we care about is at stake.

Create Positive Antibodies

A simple smile can go a long way toward turning a charged situation around, says Achor. Likewise, skip telling someone how swamped you are right at the start of a meeting or phone call, and stick with something pleasant, such as how great it is to talk with them. “Suddenly you have the power,” he says.

Build Natural Immunity

Coming from a place of strength is important when faced with others’ short circuits. Even though our workplace culture collectively values learning from failure and focuses on feedback to improve, you can (and should) leverage self-esteem.


Achor recommends the endorphin rush that accompanies exercise to boost self-esteem. He also advises taking a moment to remind yourself of what is going well and that you are able to handle whatever situational stress comes your way.

Get Vaccinated Against Possible Stress

Protect yourself before heading into work or stressful environments, says Achor. Start the day with a gratitude inventory of at least three things that you are thankful for, in that moment.

In his popular TED Talk, The Happy Secret to Better Work, Achor builds on that with four other habits to cultivate that provide a booster shot against others’ negative mindsets, namely:

  1. writing a two-minute email praising someone you know
  2. writing down the three things for which you’re grateful
  3. journaling about a positive experience for two minutes
  4. doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes
  5. meditating for just two minutes

“Nowadays, we may know to avoid smoking lounges and we wash our hands after being in busy airports,” explains Achor, “but in the future, we may realize the key to health and happiness is improving our emotional immune system to protect ourselves from others’ stress.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.