Is Stress Contagious?


Stress in others appears to affect our own emotions. And it doesn’t just happen with direct interaction like when a family member shares his worries with us, or our stressed out boss pressures us to get things done. It can happen by just seeing someone manifesting signs of stress. It often takes place under the radar of our consciousness. You have a glimpse of a colleague who is frowning his eyebrows, you hear him sigh, and you start feeling some of his distress. Why is that?

Seeing and feeling

Our nervous system has the ability to pick up in others very subtle clues: facial expression, body movements, breathing patterns, etc. It happens unconsciously due to mirror neurons (see box below). These neurons that are part of the autonomic system fire automatically when an action is taking place, but also when that same action is observed. If you watch someone furrow their brow and tighten their jaw, the neurons required to do the same facial expression will be activated in your brain, although your face doesn’t change. The same process can stimulate the feelings and emotions linked to the actions observed. In that case, worries and negative mood.
2 steps to stop the contagion!
Even though this mechanism appears to make us vulnerable to how others feel, it is in reality an essential part of living in society. Indeed, these mirror neurons allow us to feel what others are going through. Now, how to not get overwhelmed by the stress from other people? There are 2 things we can do. First, be vigilant about our body. If we start to slouch and hold our breath, catch it on time before we start to feel down for no apparent reason. Stand up straight, take a nice breath, go for a walk, or do whatever you have to do to shake off the tension. Second action we can take, if the situation allows it, is to go up to the person manifesting signs of stress and just ask them how they are feeling. 2-3 minutes of attentive listening can go a long way in helping the other person feeling understood. It will often offer her some relief for the good of all.

Mirror neurons: we neurologically mimic what others do
Mirror Neurons were discovered in 1995 by an Italian team of researchers in psycho-neurology. The discovery happened, as major discoveries often do, by chance. They were studying the brain function of a monkey. During their lunchtime, as they started to eat a pizza, they noticed that the scanner to which the monkey was hooked started to ring. The animal was nonetheless seating quietly looking at the researchers who were eating.  As Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, the lead researcher, looked closer at the scanner, he noticed that the monkey, when he saw the men reaching for the pizza, was firing the same neurons he would have to move his right arm. That initial discovery was further studied over the following decade, and major research center like the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, confirmed the mimetic function of neurons.