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 anyone we encounter.
"Stress travels in social networks," he said. "It is highly, highly contagious."
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. "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 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 often aren't possible. Which brings us to learning how to avoid falling victim.
"Stress resilience is something we can work on," Kadue, the life coach, said. "It's about responding to the stress rather than reacting to it."
Both Kadue and Safyre, the woman struck by stress in the lunch line, recommend finding something supportive — 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.' "
The source of stress is not always a person. It could be a familiar situation that has triggered stress before. A sound or smell could trigger the reaction.
"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.
If you won't address stress issues for yourself, at least do it for everyone else, Sood said. Stress we don't deal with gets passed on to the people around us.
"If you take your stress home, your family is going to feel it," the doctor said.