Stress May Be Contagious, Especially When We Care


Colds and the flu are contagious, and long ago scientists figured out why. Now, science is proving stress can be contagious, although why is still a mystery.

People who are highly empathic and easily pick up on the emotional state of others will not be surprised by this finding. They already know they can feel the influence of another’s stress, and may have their own ideas about why.

However, the research on stress contagion did find something that may surprise many people. Both male and female study participants experienced empathic stress (stress caused by observing someone who is stressed) with the same frequency.

“In surveys...women tend to assess themselves as being more empathic compared to men’s self-assessments,” said researcher Veronika Engert. “This self-perception does not seem to hold if probed by implicit measures.”

Observing and Catching Stress

Stress responses during the study were monitored by measuring changes in participants’ cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone the body releases when stressed.

The study participants were asked to observe people struggling with difficult mental arithmetic problems; 95 percent of these mental math solvers had a stress reaction to their task (increased cortisol).

The researchers were investigating in the cortisol levels of the observers, and they found that for some individuals, stress is quite contagious:

  1. Of the observers who watched the stressed math solvers directly through a one-way glass, 30 percent had a significant cortisol level increase. When observing the math solvers via video, 24 percent showed a cortisol increase.
  2. The empathic stress effect was more pronounced if the observer and math solver were partners in a relationship (true for 40 percent of the participants). However, 10 percent of those experiencing empathic stress were observing total strangers.

Relevant To Many

This research is relevant to our home, social, and work life since chronic stress contributes to physical and mental illness. Even individuals who tend to be laid back may be experiencing the ill-effects of stress in their workplace, or when watching the news, and not realize it.

People who are caregivers for those who are chronically stressed can suffer the effects of empathic cortisol reactions. Individuals who are routinely faced with the suffering of others are at higher risk of being affected. Some children and adults are likely sensitive to the stressful influence of movies, TV programs, and video games.

Though many people will notice discomfort when entering a room that is “full of tension,” they may not realize the effect that tension is having on their own well-being. The researchers hope their findings will make people and health professionals more aware of the potential consequences of empathic stress.

Source: Science Daily
Photo credit: Bernard Goldbach


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