Is Stress Contagious?

Can you “catch” stress? A new study says yes…and it’s really stressing us out.

It turns out that stress is actually contagious, according to new research from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden. The study found that just being around a stressed person, whether they’re a partner, friend, or stranger, can make our own bodies release the stress hormone cortisol.

For the study, subjects had to struggle with difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews, while subjects who acted as analysts observed and assessed their performance. Only five percent of the subjects doing the arithmetic remained calm—but surprisingly, it also really stressed out the subjects observing them. Forty percent of analysts that had a relationship with the person doing the arithmetic tasks had a stress reaction. The rate dropped to ten percent when the subject and observer were strangers.

Researchers saw the effect even when the observers weren’t in the room with the subject, but watched through a one-way mirror or on a video. “This means that even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers,” says Veronika Engert, one of the study’s authors. “Stress has enormous contagion potential.”

The study researchers made sure to note that it’s not occasional stress responses that are bad for us, but chronic stress. “A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course. When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol,” explains Engert. “However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good.” So if you’re always around chronically stressed coworkers or family members, it may rub off. And same goes for those Grey’s Anatomy binges.

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