Stress is infectious. Simply bearing witness to another human being’s distress can cause our bodies and minds to respond in kind, concludes research from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
In our ever-more-connected and stressed-out world, scientists have noticed a dramatic increase in a phenomenon known as “empathic”–or, contagious–stress. Veronika Engert, a senior researcher at Max Planck and first author of the study says, “Stress has enormous contagion potential. This means that even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit stress to viewers.”
Essentially, all of those news stories on violent events that scroll across our screens every day are just adding another layer of anxiety on top of our own personal angsts. And empathic stress carries another consequence for those who encounter examples of human suffering in their daily lives. Family caregivers of the elderly, health care professionals, emergency responders, relief workers—each of these groups risk catching additional stress from the men and women they assist on a day to day basis.
Studying how strangers spread stress
To pinpoint the precise effects of experiencing and observing stressful situations, study participants were paired up, some with a significant other, some with a stranger. One person was given a complex mental task to perform or was subjected to a difficult interview while their partner watched the nerve-wracking exchange through a one-way mirror or via a video recording.
Unsurprisingly, 95 percent of the individuals who were directly experiencing the difficult tasks exhibited a measurable stress response—a rise in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. But the truly intriguing finding was that the stress level in many of the observers (26 percent, overall) was elevated as well.
Emotional bonds, of course, played a significant role in determining whether an individual observer would experience empathic stress—only 10 percent of observers paired with strangers became more anxious, compared to 40 of those paired with a loved one. The strength of a given observer’s empathic stress response also appeared to be independent of the reaction of the person who was directly being stressed. Just because someone was able to remain calm during the mental tasks didn’t mean that their partner wouldn’t experience angst.
Stressfully transmitted diseases
Being able to experience another person’s pain helps cultivate compassion and understanding between individuals, but the residual effects of empathic stress also need to be recognized and addressed.
Over the long-term, elevated stress levels (especially cortisol) can contribute to an increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, asthma, depression and even certain forms of dementia.
There is still a significant amount of additional research that needs to be conducted in order to tease out the specifics of empathic stress, and the authors of the Max Planck study point out that the importance of increasing our understanding of how stress is transmitted from person to person. “Stress disorders are among the most commonly occurring of all mental disorders,” they write. “In this context, the question arises whether the stress inevitably unfolding around us has the potential to ‘contaminate’ and compromise us.”
Can you ‘vaccinate‘ yourself against stress?
Knowing what we do about the viral nature of stress, how do we prevent ourselves from being contaminated by all the pressure that is swirling around us?
While there is no way to completely eliminate stress from our lives, there are strategies that may help minimize its infectious effects:
Practice gratitude: One way to break out of an ongoing anxiety loop is to actively practice being more grateful. Even if your life is currently full of trials, pausing to remember the positive people and experiences you encounter can help. Try penning a thank you note to someone who has helped you in the past (or is currently assisting you). Or, take a few minutes each day to list out four things you’re grateful for.
Honor your body: A healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, combined with a regular exercise program can enhance overall health and act as a buffer against many daily stressors.
Be more mindful: The advantages of practicing mindfulness through meditation are well-documented. Numerous studies suggest that a mindfulness meditation practice can increase cognitive functioning and decrease risk of cancer, depression, insomnia, anxiety and heart disease. Don’t have the time to sit in stillness every day? Incorporating small acts of mindfulness into your daily routine—paying extra attention while washing your hands or eating a meal—can be beneficial.
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