stressed woman with child in her lap

Second-hand stress can be just as detrimental as second-hand smoke. In fact, the University of London conducted a 20 year study which revealed that unmanaged stress posed more of a danger for developing heart disease and cancer than cigarettes or high-cholesterol food. Stress can elevate cholesterol levels, increase cravings for cigarettes or other nicotine products, and cause chest pain, hair loss, high blood pressure, and weight gain.

Stress Is Contagious
Many parents and spouses understand that their stress can negatively impact others, but are unaware of how much. Stress is projected through both verbal and nonverbal communication and just like second-hand smoke, it permeates the entire household, engulfing and poisoning everything within its reach. According to The American Psychological Association, 91 percent of kids say they can detect stress by their parents' actions--from shouting and arguing to being too busy to spend time with the family. As a result, 39 percent of kids also say they're worried or sad, and 33 percent are frustrated when they observe the stressful behavior of their parents.

Dr. Brad Gilbreath, associate professor of organizational leadership at Indiana University and Purdue University, describes stress as an environmental pollutant. He explains the turmoil a stressed person can cause others because you never know what will set him or her off or when.

Physical Components of Stress
Second-hand stress produces a wide range of negative physical byproducts. In a study led by Dr. Talat Islam of the University of Southern California, kids living in stressful households are more susceptible to the lung damage caused by traffic pollution than those with parents who are less stressed. In fact, increased air pollution had virtually no effect on the latter group.

The development of childhood asthma may also be related to second-hand stress. A study published in Pediatrics Magazine that was spearheaded by Dr. Mary Klinnert of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, revealed that hereditary factors weren't the only indications for a child developing asthma. Infants of parents who had problems adjusting to parenthood, managing their emotions, and controlling stress during the first few months of the child's life were at greater risk of developing asthma.

Children are not the only family members affected by second-hand stress and anxiety. In a study by Dr. Elaine Eaker, men married to women who routinely arrive home stressed from their jobs are twice as likely to develop heart disease than husbands with wives who don't come home anxious and upset.

Emotional/Psychological Components of Stress
In addition to physical problems, second-hand stress can also produce emotional issues. Dr. Golda Ginsburg, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Research at Johns Hopkins University, conducted a study which revealed that close to 65 percent of kids with an anxious parent are susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder. Also, parents who have an anxiety disorder are seven times more likely to have children who develop anxiety disorders.

In adolescents, second-hand stress affects school performance as well. Research conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles that was published in Child Development, found that adolescents with high levels of family stress were unable to concentrate in school for at least two days following a stressful incident, and those in routinely stressful family environments experienced a decline in academic achievement from the 9th to the 12th grade. This performance also spills over to the athletic field. Dr. Judy Goss, a sports psychology consultant, says that kids with anxious and stressed parents may not play as well as other youngsters.

How to Manage Second-hand Stress
1. Exercise routinely to relieve stress and help clear your mind so you can formulate solutions to your problems.

2. Get an electronic babysitter. In an interview with The New York Times, Ben Caplan, author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, recommends letting your children watch TV or play video games when you are upset and short-tempered. It's a better alternative to shouting or being irritable, and gives both you and the kids a break.

3. Temporarily change your environment by going out with friends, your partner, or by yourself to enjoy a change of scenery. You'll return cooled down and revitalized.

4. Eliminate nonessential activities that cause unnecessary stress. If playing a musical instrument or being on the baseball team is an undue stressor, allow your kids to withdraw from these activities.

5. Go to sleep at night. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is lowered while you sleep, but swells when you don't get enough sleep.