You Are Stressin’ Me Out!

It turns out that we really can stress each other out, especially in families. Now we have evidence that supports ’empathic stress’, especially if it involves someone we care about. The Journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (say that fast three times!) reported in April 2014 that watching a loved one going through a stressful situation can actually increase unhealthy hormone (cortisol) levels by 40% in the observer. But when the observer watches a stranger experience stress, it only raises cortisol by 10%. Vicarious stress is real when we know and care about the person go through the duress.

90% of the stress subjects experienced increased cortisol levels as a result of their stressful situations. So living with someone who is struggling with grades or challenges at work rubs off on other family members. Tension between parents negatively impacts children. Getting cut from the team or downsized from the job is stressful and is likely to increase the stress of other family members and even close friends.


How do we help someone, we care about, who is experiencing duress? Realize that stressful situations can lead to a variety of consequences: distraction, fatigue, irritability, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, depression and anxiety. I’d like to focus on anxiety, because it is very common. Over 40 million American adults suffer from panic disorders and anxiety, and likely tens of millions of teenagers and children. To help a stressed-out family member who is experiencing anxiety, remember the following five tips:

1. Panic attacks and anxiety are sneak attacks and are never convenient. They can come out of nowhere and ambush you. They aren’t rational, and you can’t always predict them.

2. Telling someone to “calm down” is annoying and seldom works. “Get a hold of yourself,” or similar comments are seen as criticism or judgement and often increases the fear, instead of calming the person. If you struggle with anxiety, you know that trying not to be afraid or anxious, often increases the panic. Instead, offer your understanding and support. Ask, “What’s making you feel this way?” or “What can I do to help?” Sometimes a drink of water or an offer to take a quick walk outside is all someone needs.

3. Anxiety amplifies fear and compounds stress. A lot of us feel uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers, or getting into a cramped elevator. We all feel uneasy when we face uncertainty, but those with anxiety feel it deeper and it usually has a physical symptom to accompany the dread: sweating, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, rashes, hives, irritable bowel syndrome or nausea. One way to support a family member is to remember that stress is not the enemy. Anxiety isn’t a monster (though it feels like one). Stress is information. It’s neutral, not bad or good. Stress actually prepares our body to respond to a perceived threat. If we can help our family member view anxiety and stress reaction as helping prepare our body for action in coping with a stressor, then that person is likely “to be less stressed, less anxious and more confident,” says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. in her TED Talk on stress and in her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do To Get More Of It (Penguin, 2011). How we think about stress matters. We don’t want to fight it or deny it, we want to get better at stress and learn from it.

4. Because anxiety exhibits itself physically, sometimes the best way to support a loved one is to simply be with them: physical presence is a gift. We can be silent. In fact, it might be good to say, “I’m just going to sit with you now.” We want to be aware, mindful and emotionally and physically present. Stress and anxiety are frightening, but being alone in the middle of a panic attack is worse. Recent evidence supports social and physical support helps release oxytocin, AKA the ‘cuddle hormone’ because it promotes bonding between people. It is a healthy hormone that counteracts the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Sometimes the best thing to do for an anxious family member is to give them a hug! Oxytocin helps you feel calm, connected and safe and actually promotes cell regeneration in the heart if they are damaged after stress. A hug is good medicine.


5. Over-thinking is exhausting. It’s so easy to get caught up in the crazy, fatiguing cycle of thoughts lead to worries, which lead to more thoughts which lead to even more worries! When you feel anxious, see that as an indicator light, like the one on the dashboard of your car. Some thing needs my attention. The yellow light is on. Change your negative thinking. Ruminating on negative thoughts creates anxiety. Do not catastrophize a situation or jump to unfounded conclusions. Challenge black and white thinking and learn to live in the gray. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong. Bad or good. It just is. Experiment with putting your brain in neutral – not jumping forward with anxiety, or backing up with regret, but embracing the moment without judgement, but with awareness. Try meditation, exercise, reflecting on inspirational thoughts,  laughing and petting your dog for an escape from the tyranny of over-thinking.

All families face stress, none of us are exempt. The challenge is to support each other and learn all that we can from it when we encounter it. Feel free to contact me if I can help you with other coping skills to build resilience to deal with anxiety and stress.

For calmer families.

Portions of this post were adapted from: