Contrary to popular belief, not all stress is bad for a person’s health. Surprisingly, it can help us achieve peak performance and act as a motivator when kept in balance. Is it possible that this feeling can be passed from person to person? Can stress be contagious?
A Mutual Feeling
When a person you care about comes home stressed from work and acts out on it, you’ve probably noticed how your own stress levels start to increase. In 2017, a study aimed to investigate whether second-hand stress is possible by monitoring the cardiac activity of individuals partaking in the experiment. Observing participants were tasked with watching a set of videos featuring people speaking under different levels of intensity.
The study showed how observing another person experiencing high-stress levels exhibits a distinct pattern of cardiac activity in the observer. Furthermore, it proved a significant connection between empathy and feelings of stress. Watching calm individuals caused the activity of the autonomic nervous system to remain at the baseline while observing those stressed out caused the system to diverge. However, further research is still needed, as contagious stress is a complicated subject.
Even though most studies have been done on rats and are not 100% representative of humans’ reaction, they’re a good indicator of what we can expect. Research conducted in 2017 separated two rats while exposing one to a stressful situation. After reuniting them, the other rat also showed increased heart rate, the release of corticosterone (hormone) and social avoidance behavior, even though it wasn’t exposed to any actual stressful event.
The study concluded that CRH, a neuron that controls the brain’s response to stress, gets activated and releases a chemical signal/alarm pheromone that acts as a warning mechanism for other members of the group. Mirror neurons also play a big role. They “mirror” the behaviors, responding to actions that we observe in other people. Even though we’re not physically replicating the observed action, mirror neurons still fire off. They exist with the sole purpose to help us learn and adapt, but can far too often have a negative effect, especially where stress is concerned.
Avoiding the Contagion
Stress is only the result of the story that we tell ourselves. It can go in an endless cycle unless we react accordingly. The more stressed out we are, the more likely it is that we’ll pass it on to someone else unwillingly. Use the mirror neurons to your advantage. Instead of letting them backfire on someone else, take your time to realize why a person is stressed out.
Most often those experiencing second-hand stress don’t even realize what kind of negative impact they can have. By changing your response, you can help the person work through their challenge. Even though yes, stress is contagious, you don’t have to get caught up in its negative effects. Try to surround yourself in a healthy environment. Of course, stress is an unavoidable part of human life, just make sure that it doesn’t take control of yours.