We humans are empathic by nature – it’s a fundamental part of how we build relationships with one another. Most people subconsciously mirror the feelings of those around them and try to think the way they must be thinking. When this goes wrong, it can have some pretty alarming effects; but even outside of these extreme cases, you might find yourself taking on board feelings that you’d rather not have. Ever notice your shoulders tensing or your jaw clenching when you’re around people who are panicking? Turns out, stress is contagious.
Stress is almost a fact of modern life. We know that it’s not good for us, with studies reporting its effects on everything from brain development to the immune system. The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health links chronic stress to a number of serious health concerns, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Science is also not short of recommendations on how to relieve stress – but, no matter how much yoga and meditation you do, there is one source of anxiety and tension that you might not be able to avoid: other people.
Is stress really contagious?
The short answer is, yes.
The idea that stress can rub off on those around us is not new. In a recent review published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, authors Jonas P. Nitschke and Jennifer A. Bartz took a systematic look at the previous scientific literature on the topic and found that there is indeed “abundant evidence for stress contagion – the 'spillover' of stress from a stressed target to an unstressed perceiver.”
In other words, you might have been feeling perfectly zen about that big work project, but spending time with your stressed-out colleague has left you feeling just as frazzled as they are. It’s not quite as simple as that, and the authors raise a number of areas that require further study, such as whether there is a difference between chronic and acute stress. However, it’s definitely true that the stress of those around us can be catching.
Amongst the many studies that Nitschke and Bartz included in their exhaustive analysis were several that have tried to find experimental evidence for the stress contagion.
In one 2017 study, electrocardiogram data was collected from 63 subjects as they watched videos of people speaking. The video recordings were divided into three categories, with the speakers in a state of no stress, stress, or post-stress. The results showed that when the observers were viewing someone in obvious distress, their own heart rates actually decreased.
This might sound counterintuitive – we normally associate stress with a rapid heart rate – but the researchers do have an explanation: “cardiac deceleration may be indicative of a ‘freezing’ stress response. Cardiac deceleration responses generally occur in situations when no behavioral response is necessary or during periods of information collection.”
So, the observers were sensing and taking on board the stress of the people in the video, but because the person was only in a video, and the observers weren’t required to take any action to help them, this manifested as a decrease in heart rate.
This is important evidence to support the idea of stress as a contagion, but the authors again caution that more research is needed and that this effect might be mediated “in a more complex way than previously recognized.” They also point out another important piece of the puzzle that is missing – it’s not yet clear whether second-hand stress has the same negative health consequences as first-hand stress.
That leads us nicely to our next point: spreading your stress around might not be such a bad thing after all.
It’s not all bad
Despite what you may think, there are actually some benefits to sharing stress with those around us. Nitschke and Bartz discuss how sharing a stressful experience can lead to a strengthening of some relationships: “stress has the power to draw individuals closer together”.
Not only that, but people who are more readily affected by other people’s stress might also be more affected by their positive emotions too. “It’s the foundation for empathy, and without emotional contagion, it would be harder to understand what others are experiencing,” said lead author of the 2017 study Stephanie Dimitroff, in an interview with Vogue. “And if you’re prone to stress contagion, you’re likely to catch all emotions from others – including happiness.”
Evolutionarily, too, it’s been useful for humans to have a knack for sensing the feelings of their compatriots. Also speaking to Vogue, Professor Tony Buchanan of St Louis University explained that “in animals who live in groups, such as humans, your chances of survival are greater if you pay attention to others’ stress, as a warning sign of danger, and mobilize internal resources to get your muscles working to flee that situation.”
It's a trait that’s not exclusive to primates. Studies have shown similar stress-sharing between mice, and there’s evidence to suggest that our stress could even be rubbing off on our canine companions.
However, even if you find yourself getting swept up in the tension of others, you do still have some control over how you react. Speaking to LiveScience, Professor Joe Herbert of the University of Cambridge emphasized that it’s possible to learn to avoid the stress contagion: “High empathy will increase the awareness of another’s emotion. How this affects the onlooker will depend on circumstance. […] Good leaders and even parents can learn to not catch the stress of others, and instead simply deal with the situation at hand.”
So, we can safely conclude that stress can be infectious – but precisely how this effect is mediated, and how significant it truly is for our own well-being, are just some of the facets that require further study.
The fact is, while the idea of “catching” feelings from other people makes for a snappy headline, there’s still a minefield of unanswered questions to explore. It’s vital that scientists do explore them, to enrich our understanding of what it means to coexist as humans in our modern, stressful world.
"Not only is stress an inescapable fact of existence in general," conclude Nitschke and Bartz, "but it is, arguably, intimately tied to the phenomenon of empathy and social relations more broadly.”