How Contagious is Stress?

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

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I guess we'd all like to think we’re totally in charge of our own emotions, but is this really the case? Actually, others constantly manipulate our emotions, and sometimes we buy into this of our own free will. Think about it. We all have music that makes us feel energized, or happy, reflective, or sad. What’s your favorite movie, or book? We relate to them because they tap into a part of us at an emotional level.

Having our emotions tweaked can be quite pleasurable, but there are plenty of times when we may become the victim of other people's stress. In the same way that a virus can spread from person to person, stress is also contagious. As to how contagious, I'll come on to that in a moment.

How we mirror emotions

You probably know at least one person who is “hard work.” This is the person whom you tiptoe around. You have to be careful what you say and what you do. You can never truly relax around them because you have to maintain a certain level of vigilance. If you get it wrong, your life becomes even more difficult because they get angry, they sulk, and maybe they even become vindictive. It's the kind of situation that can be dealt with in short bursts, but over a lengthy period of time it becomes highly stressful.

How many adults experience stressful work environments due to the emotional fallout from other workers or bosses? It's hard to know, but we've probably all experienced this to some degree. We are hardwired to empathize with other people at the most basic level. When others yawn, we yawn. When members of our family or loved ones feel pain, we feel it too. When they seek our understanding, we're able to give it because we have the capacity to imagine their trauma. The same basic mechanism triggers when stress comes from other sources, only their stress becomes ours.

Spreading stress

A recent University of British Columbia study examined the relationship between teacher burnout and stress in children. Researchers collected saliva samples from children and tested them for the stress hormone cortisol. In classrooms where teachers experienced greater feelings of emotional exhaustion and burnout, elevated cortisol levels were found in children. The study authors suggest the cause is stress contagion. The implications of such findings are far-reaching. A stressful classroom suggests that children’s needs may not be met; at worst, stress is linked to learning difficulties and mental health problems.

Coping with a stress contagion

All of this brings us back to the question: How contagious is stress? Well, this really depends on the extent to which we buy into the stress being sent our way. We perceive stress. That is, the reality of a stressful situation differs from person to person. One person's catastrophic event may have little bearing on you, but their story somehow makes it so:"If we don't achieve this task by this time, we're all doomed." Sometimes it's a case of standing back and examining the facts for what they are. Is this person always operating at a level of borderline catastrophe? Must you always be the victim of this approach, or could you turn things around and state that you dislike being treated in such a manner?

As adults, our capacity to manage stress is actually quite sophisticated. We have a number of resources we can utilize that have a calming effect and that build resilience. As much as stress is contagious, so your own calm and measured disposition can affect those around you in a positive way.

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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.