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Do You Suffer from Secondhand Stress?

by Traci PedersenAugust 05, 2014
Heal

Do you cringe when you see someone get yelled at, hurt, or embarrassed? Do you tend to soak up others’ emotions—especially the feelings of those close to you? A new study has confirmed that “secondhand stress” is a very real thing and that many people catch another person’s stress as easily as the common cold.

For the study, researchers from Saint Louis University set up a situation so that a man had to witness a stranger defend himself after being falsely accused of a wrongdoing. When it was over, the researchers measured the onlooker’s heart rate and cortisol levels and found that, yes, this man took on the stress of a total stranger.

Stress can be passed on from one person to the next by way of facial expressions, voice frequency, smell and touch, according to the researchers. And although it is possible to pick up stress from a complete stranger, we are four times more likely to catch stress from a loved one or friend.

So, what can we do about it? Because we do know—whether it’s firsthand or secondhand—that stress can be unhealthy. For starters, we can choose a healthy lifestyle so that our bodies are strong and resilient.

In a recent study at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers found that participants who exercised, slept well, and ate a better diet had less telomere shortening than those who didn’t maintain a healthy lifestyle, even when both groups experienced similar levels of stress.

Telomeres are little strands of DNA that work as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces. As telomeres get shorter, the whole structure weakens, causing cells to age and die more quickly.

In participants who had engaged in unhealthy behaviors, the telomeres in their immune cells became significantly shorter with each life stressor they experienced that year. In other words, these folks aged more quickly.

Another proven way to lower anxiety is to focus our thoughts in a positive direction. One recent experiment found that people with a strong sense of purpose were better able to handle daily stress.

For example, previous research has found that people become anxious when more and more people of a different race are added to a group. In the new experiment, however, a group of college students was asked to write down their life’s purpose before stepping onto a Chicago train. Another group of students was asked to write about a movie they had just seen. The movie writers experienced typical stress levels as people of a different race boarded the train, while the life purpose writers reported feeling no stress at all.


Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional freelance writer who specializes in psychology, science, health, and spiritual themes.  Some of her most recent work includes covering the latest research news in science and psychology, writing science chapter books for elementary students, and developing teacher resource books.  When she is not researching and writing, she is spending time with her family, reading anything and everything, and going to the beach as often as possible.


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