5 Positive Strategies to Combat Secondhand Stress (and 3 Not-So-Great Ones)

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Have you ever heard of the term “Secondhand Stress”?

A couple of years ago, my husband went to a local bar because he heard the chicken wings were delicious. What he didn’t know was that this bar was also the local hangout for smokers. The bar was filled with cigarette smoke. When he opened the door, the cloud of smoke engulfed him. He could barely see the counter to pick up his carry out. 

Even with the small amount of time he was in the bar to pick up his chicken wings, he reeked of smoke when he came out. There was no way to enter the bar without coming out smelling like a smoker himself. 

This is what I think of when I hear the term secondhand stress. 

Like secondhand smoke, you can’t be around someone else’s stress without it affecting you. 

5 Positive Strategies to Combat Secondhand Stress (and 3 Not-So-Great Ones) Omaha Mom

What is Secondhand Stress? 

Secondhand stress is the “fight or flight” urge you have when you walk into someone else’s stress. It’s usually a spouse’s or family member’s stress. And just by sensing their mood, you “catch” their stress. 

The first time I saw this term, I immediately identified with it. 

“That’s totally what I do!” I thought. 

Chances are, with the spread of COVID-19, you or someone you love has felt stressed this year. 

If I’m honest, I have felt secondhand stress from my chronically stressed spouse most of the year. 

I want to take away his stress burden, but I cannot. He needs to figure out his own stress strategies. But the best thing I can do to support him is not to “catch” his stress.

I’m not always the best at that. 

I know I’m stressed when I start behaving in these negative ways: 

  1. I snap. Patience and compassion seem to fly out the window. In every situation I’m faced with, my tongue becomes a whip. Watch out!
  2. I gorge. Sugar calls my name as if it is a remedy for all things. Although chocolate can take the edge off of stress, for me, that one piece of chocolate cake turns into three. I end up feeling worse by the end. I’m not eating to enjoy; I’m eating to fill something emotionally. 
  3. I disengage. I find myself isolated, watching re-run after re-run of a show I don’t even particularly like. I’m all for a good movie marathon night, but it’s not healthy for me when I’m doing it to avoid my feelings. 

If you can identify with any of those, perhaps you also need a reminder of how to deal with stress well, especially secondhand stress. In my opinion, secondhand stress feels more out of control because you are responding to the presence of a person you love, not necessarily a problem you can tackle.

But, the good news is, you are in control. You can be the calm in a chaotic situation, both for your stressed loved one and the rest of your family. Here is what I try to remind myself when I am feeling stressed. 

5 Positive Strategies to Combat Secondhand Stress (and 3 Not-So-Great Ones) Omaha Mom

My Five Mantras to Combat Stress

1. My body and mind are connected.

If I don’t take care of my body, it’s more likely that I will feel anxious. Three healthy (not junk food) meals a day, sleep, and exercise are important to regulate my blood sugar and keep me functioning well

2. My routine is paramount.

Stress feels chaotic. I can’t think and make decisions well. So to minimize decision fatigue, I stick to a routine. I know what I should be doing at any moment. This also helps me build boundaries into my day. It looks something like this: “I am so sorry that you are going through this, but right now I am doing x, y, z. I can talk to you about your stress later at this specific time.” If I schedule a time for my spouse to talk to me about his stress, I can be prepared emotionally (and not catch his secondhand stress). 

3. Doing things I enjoy revives me.

For me, that’s reading and writing. I love getting caught up in a writing project or a good book. But for others, that might look like a crafting hobby or a math game. Being in nature is also my go-to. Have you ever tried forest bathing? Just being outside (even in the cold) helps me re-focus. 

4. Humor is important.

Like being in nature, there are numerous studies on laughing and how it can relieve stress. My kids always make me laugh, so sometimes my prescribed laughter comes from an impromptu dance party in the middle of our kitchen. Letting loose and being silly gives me the giggles. 

5. Ask for help.

Asking for help can come in the form of professional help like a doctor or a therapist, or it can come in the form of a friend. It’s acknowledging that “this” (whatever your “this” may be) is hard. Whenever I feel stressed, one of the first things I do is pray. It’s a simple way to acknowledge what I’m feeling and release my control. Recently, the stress I felt was too much to carry alone. I called on trusted friends. The result? Days upon days of friends “checking-in” and encouraging me. Asking for help is vulnerable and scary, but it might be exactly what you need. 

Be the Example

We live in a stressful world. It’s no wonder that we feel others’ stress; however, learning how to deal with stress is important, not only for ourselves but also for our children. We can be examples to help them figure out their own stress strategies.

As for our adult loved ones with chronic stress? Of course, we want to be there and support them. The best way we can do that is by handling our own stress and avoiding their secondhand stress. 

Other Resources on Stress: 

Omaha Mom’s Tips to Make Life Less Irritating

UNMC’s Stress Reduction Strategies

Managing COVID-19 Stress Resources from Nebraska Medicine

Have you felt secondhand stress lately? What are some strategies you use to de-stress?

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