How to Reduce the Impact of Secondhand Emotions

Elaine Conrad

emotions, parenting, self-care, mental health, depression, anxiety, emotion regulation

We all experience emotions that dictate how we see and understand others and how they see and understand us. In turn, this plays a part in how we form opinions about the world around us and each other.

Strong emotions sometimes create angst in our lives, which can inadvertently be felt by those around us. Recently I have felt the weight of this, becoming agitated when waiting in line at the grocery store or feeling secondhand anxiety as I listen to a client discuss how stressed they’ve been trying to fit in a Zoom therapy session while teaching their child, working from home, and trying to maintain some level of normalcy. Their emotions run high as they talk about how difficult life has become – and my emotions run high as I listen.

When we experience the effects of our own strong emotions like anger, frustration, fear, worry, sadness, etc., they unintentionally spill over to those around us – these are what I call secondhand emotions.

Often strong emotions stem from feeling helpless – one way to help combat this feeling is to help others in a way that is different than what you do in your normal work life.

With our world in a state of high alert, it’s hard not to feel stressed, frustrated, and even angry at times. It’s difficult not to feel anxious, even if you aren’t usually bitten by the worry bug. In my work with children who experience anxiety, I have a hard and fast rule that parents must also attend the session so they can learn the tools to help work with the “worry minions” at home, school, and in every part of their lives because where there is a worried child, there is often another family member who experiences the same thing. That way I am able to teach the parents the tools to help put the “worry minions” in their place and reduce the secondhand emotions that often perpetuate the problem.

How can we reduce the negative secondhand emotions for ourselves and others when we encounter strong emotions at work, school, the store, or at home? Here are a few tips that may help:

Be a safe place to land.

Because people will likely feel the secondhand effects of strong emotions, having a follow-up conversation with a support person where they can debrief and process how they feel will help. Turn the conversation towards accepting the emotion. Be curious and nonjudgmental to allow open dialogue. If it’s a child coming to you for support, remind them that adults sometimes have a hard time with their emotions too. Let them know that it’s okay to have strong emotions and you are there for them to lean on when they have strong emotions. Two rules I have for strong emotions are:

a) You may not harm yourself or another with your words.

b) You may not harm yourself or another with your actions.

Work with the body’s natural ability to manage stress.

Self-care and compassion are important during times of stress, and exercise is one of the best ways to manage it, so get up and move. When our mood is low and strong emotions start to rise up, incorporating even mild exercise has been shown to help improve mood by increasing endorphins in our body. Find whatever activity you enjoy and do it, even if it’s for 10 or 15 minutes.

Be sure to incorporate positive self talk into the activity: “I’m doing the best I can right now” or “Today was frustrating, but I worked hard; I’m exercising to take care of me” Take a walk and pay attention to your surroundings – notice how the sun glistens on the snow (not how cold it is), how the crisp air feels against on your skin (not how awful that wind feels), the sounds of birds, the smell of the fresh air, the taste of the mint you are chewing. And don’t forget to have fun – go sledding, build a snowman, or take a hike while listening to your favourite audiobook.

Create a list of activities that help regulate the physical sensations strong secondhand emotions can bring on.

Examples include writing in a journal, drawing a picture of something inspiring, or visualizing your calm place. You can even watch a favourite show or play with your pet. Use this list to help regulate yourself when strong emotions begin to surface. If you are working with children, be sure to teach them these skills and how to regulate those strong emotions they may be seeing/feeling from those around them.

Pay it forward.

Often strong emotions stem from feeling helpless – one way to help combat this feeling is to help others in a way that is different than what you do in your normal work life. Deliver groceries to those who can’t get to the store, or drop off craft supplies to a single parent. Donate to your local homeless shelter, or send a letter/card to those in long-term care facilities. There are many options, and be sure to look at it as spreading secondhand joy.

And finally . . . just say no!

That’s right! Say no by reducing your exposure to the news. Strong emotions can stem from the news we read and hear, so reducing your exposure to all types of media to a need-to-know basis (once a day or less) is a good way to help prevent strong emotions in ourselves and secondhand emotions in others. If something really important needs to be communicated, someone in your circle will notify you.

By accepting our strong emotions, taking care of our minds through exercise, continuing to help those in need, turning towards pleasurable things, controlling what we can, and letting the rest go, we can help ensure that our strong emotions are managed in healthy ways. By committing to healthy coping strategies for emotion regulation, we can help minimize the possible negative effects of secondhand emotions, continue to help those in need, and have a little fun while we’re at it.


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Author: Elaine Conrad (MEd, RP)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute.
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