Witnesses to Each Other’s Existing

Seeing secondhand stress in a new light

Apr 23, 2023

Stress Perspective Mental Health Reflections God
group of people walking on stairs in a building

Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco

It happens often when I’m “out in the world.” Grocery shopping, waiting at intersections, working out at the gym, eating in restaurants. Sometimes it even seeps through my laptop screen while working with my colleagues and sitting in on video calls. It’s palpable, some days stronger than others. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels it. What am I referring to? The ever-present, inescapable, potent energy of secondhand stress and anxiety. I actually googled it to see if it’s a real term and according to the Harvard Business Review, it is. Essentially, though it’s pretty straightforward, it refers to when you feel stressed or anxious because someone else is showing signs of stress or anxiety. According to a study mentioned in the HBR article, “if someone in your visual field is anxious and highly expressive — either verbally or non-verbally — there’s a high likelihood you’ll experience those emotions as well, negatively impacting your brain’s performance.”

We live in a high-stress society. I’m sure if I looked up the statistics, they would be staggering. Yet I definitely don’t need more data to tell me what I see in front of me on a daily basis. And for an HSP like myself, it affects me a lot more deeply. It can even be felt if staying at home all day—from a spouse, a child, a person we talk to virtually, turning on the news. Running into it is inevitable. We bump into it unintentionally. Often it hangs over us like an ominous cloud, raining angst and tension onto our already burdened shoulders. We don’t have much say in being faced with it, like an unwelcome guest.

There is only so much self-care we can incorporate into our lives to combat secondhand stress. Whether it’s due to lack of time, lack of finances, or lack of resources, it never feels like enough. We are caught in an endless vicious cycle of doing all the things to rid ourselves of the stress, just to end up stressed from making the time and effort required to do the ridding. Our sacred spaces are becoming harder to carve out. Even if we are excellent at managing our own stress, we are bombarded by the stress of others, which often ends up on our plate. Self-care can only get us so far; it cannot handle all the things outside our control, and it’s not meant to.

When I sense others’ stress, it is not merely a mental or even emotional sensation, but a physical one as well. I feel squeezed in, cramped, with a headache looming. And as constricted as I feel, I strangely want to go hide in a shell and not come out. It is a fearful state of mind, and keenly dejected. There is no room for hope. The world simultaneously shrinks into a tiny ball and expands beyond my reach. I want to help but feel helpless. And deep down, a sadness arises in me—for humanity, for our shared planet, for the brokenness so utterly apparent. I am reminded of how far we have strayed from God’s vision for the world—heaven on earth. And what grieves me even more is how I contribute to the fracturing.

This much I know—avoiding is not the answer. We cannot hide out from society and isolate ourselves if we crave community and desire to participate in it.

As enticing as a shell sounds on many days, it cannot fill our needs for relationship and connection. 1 Peter 4:8 tells us that we should “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” The paradox of engaging with others is that we need each other’s help to overcome sin (through prayer, fellowship, modeling, conviction, support systems), and yet many of our sins are because of our relationships with each other, occurring in the midst of relating (envy, adultery, lust, pride, to name a few). Unless we decide to go live on a mountain all by ourselves for the rest of our lives, we have no choice but to live in community with one another.

Secondhand stress and anxiety is a byproduct of choosing this communal life. It is a side effect we must learn how to manage. Part of that involves reconciling within ourselves the fact that the rewards of kinship with our fellow human beings come with the risk of pain and heartbreak. We accept the bad with the good. Just as another’s stress can affect us, however, so can their joy. Watching a loved one elated at finally achieving their dream fills our heart with gladness for them. Seeing a stranger moved to tears from an act of kindness captivates our spirit. We get to share in their delight.

Ultimately, we get to be witnesses to each other’s existing.

We have the privilege to both take up space here and enter into the spaces of others, if they allow it. Yes we will be affected by the energies of those we are surrounded by, but we also have the opportunity to do so much good in these spheres of influence. Maybe feeling secondhand stress is an indicator of where we can support each other, where we can offer relief of any kind. Maybe it is a siren crying out for help, asking for a lifeline. This is not a call to save others; it’s an invitation to see how we can serve with the gifts and resources we’ve been given.

The moment we stop fighting for each other, that's the moment we lose our humanity.

~Chiwetel Ejiofor's character 'Adrian Helmsley' in the movie '2012'

What if we are so overwhelmed by the stress of others that we don’t know where to begin assisting? This is where we prayerfully go to God and ask Him where He would like to use us. Where we can do the most good. God has places in mind before we ever ask. He has divine assignments for us before we are born. For what the enemy intended for evil and to harm us with, “God intended for good” (Genesis 50:20). If we begin to see secondhand stress and anxiety in this light, it opens us up to feel purposeful instead of fearful, inspired instead of bothered. We may still be strongly affected by it in our day-to-day life, but instead of running from it, we will consider moving towards it with the confidence that God will provide us the courage and fortitude needed to help.

Theodore Roosevelt captures the essence of this when he said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” The keyword being “can.” We can’t do everything, but we can do something. A phone call, a visit, a gift, a kind word or gesture. If we all offered more of these, we would feel a lot less stress secondhand. My headaches would certainly reduce. It is tempting to think “this is not enough,” “it won’t matter.” That is where our faith comes in—where our strength ends, God’s begins. He will take our mustard seeds of generosity and make them flourish, expanding their capacity to aid others.

We are not called to eradicate the world’s suffering; we are called to reduce it as much as we can.

For we were made to “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), and this is both taxing and gratifying. But God will never ask us to do this carrying alone. Though the world may be covered in a cloud of secondhand madness, above that cloud stands the sovereignty of a God who has overcome it. We must train our eye to see past the darkness, no matter how enveloping it may feel. If we look hard enough, in the everyday stresses of the lives we live lie pockets of so much grace and tenderness and compassion, they would take our breath away. They would heal us. As for me, I will take all the secondhand beauty I can wrap my hands around.