Can Stress Be Contagious? Research Says So

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Everyone has or will experience stress at some point in their life. While stress may be considered a personal turmoil, research says that it can be “caught” from others.

Stress is unavoidable. Changes in life such as a new job, buying a house, or an injury can induce stress in people.

According to a 2014 paper in the journal  Psychoneuroendocrinology, stress can also be transferred from other people in stressful situations. According to researchers, seeing another person under stress can make one’s own body release cortisol, a stress hormone. Called “empathic stress,” it happens more easily when one sees a loved one or a close person in distress, according to the study. However, it can also happen upon seeing a stranger suffering.

“It’s definitely possible to [subconsciously] perceive another person’s emotions, especially negative ones,” Tara Perrot, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Canada, told Live Science. “This would have been selected for in our evolutionary past as it would provide a non-verbal way to communicate danger and fear.”

Another 2013 study in the journal  Current Biology, suggested that emotions can “spread” from one person to another through “mirror neurons,” which are brain cells that are stimulated upon seeing someone perform an action. A common example of this is a yawn, which triggers others to reciprocate the action.

“If someone panics, they are in a stressed state,” Joe Herbert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, U.K, said. “Panic can spread throughout a community, as can fear or anxiety, irrespective of whether there is a genuine cause.”

This mimicking of emotions is not confined to humans alone. “Other animals can perceive the emotions of members of their species,” Perrot said. “For example, rats that observe another rat undergoing a stressful experience show increases in stress hormone levels even without direct experience.”

Stress is not the villain it’s made out to be. Stress plays an important role in preparing the body for any dangerous situations. 

“The stress response is hugely beneficial,” Perrot said. “It prepares our bodies and brains to deal with the stressor at hand. If a lion runs at you, you want to mount a strong stress response that liberates glucose from stores, increases heart rate, and decreases non-essential functions like digestion.” 

But stressing over every small matter can do the body more damage than good.

“There are many daily hassles that people end up perceiving as stressful and the stress response can occur too often, which can be damaging to the body and brain,” Perrot stated.

According to Herbert, the stress response is adaptive. Meaning, one can train the mind to positively react to stressors.

“High empathy will increase the awareness of another’s emotion,” Herbet noted. “How this affects the onlooker will depend on circumstance. It might just elicit aid, but it could be stressful depending on the demand it causes on the second person. Good leaders and even parents can learn to not catch the stress of others, and instead, simply deal with the situation at hand.”

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