Secondhand Stress Can Be Contagious

A pair of recent studies have proven in the research lab something that you may already be instinctively aware of: being around stressed out people can make you stressed out.

And while this may seem obvious to you, understanding their research findings and incorporating this new term, “secondhand stress” into your vocabulary will help you decrease your stress levels.

One study performed at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany looked at couples and how their stress affected each other. One person was taken into a room and had to solve complicated math problems in front of two supposed behavior analysts who assessed their performance. As expected, the test subject’s secretion of cortisol, a major stress hormone, went up indicating higher stress levels.

In another room, a second person watched through a one-way mirror the other person taking the math test and being scrutinized by the analysts. 26% of the people watching the person taking the test showed elevated cortisol release as well. The person behind the one-way mirror was only watching a person in stressful situation and their stress levels went up too.

Interestingly, only 10% of the observers showed a heightened stress response if they didn’t know the person trying to solve the math problems in the other room. But if the person behind the one-way mirror was a romantic partner of the person taking the test, then 40% of them showed higher stress hormone levels. So the more connected you are to a person, the more their stress can affect you.

Also, the researchers showed that this “empathetic stress response” was the same whether the observer watched directly through a one-way mirror or they watched it virtually on a television screen. Another reason to reassess what you watch on TV or what movies you go see.

“Even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers.” said Veronika Engert, one of the study’s authors. “Stress has an enormous contagion potential.”

The other study performed at U.C. San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry showed that stressed out moms stress out their babies.

A group of mothers were taken into a testing room while their 1-year-olds played in another room (under supervision of course). The mothers were then told they had to give an impromptu 5-minute speech in front of two evaluators with Q&A afterwards. Half the moms were given positive feedback on their speeches by the evaluators and half were given negative feedback and criticism.

As expected, all of the moms showed elevated heart rates during and after giving their speeches. And the ones that were given negative feedback on their performance showed much higher heart rates and sustained them for a longer time afterwards.

Then the moms were reunited with their babies. The researchers saw that the babies’ heart rates went up significantly after spending only a few minutes with their moms that were still stressed out from giving their speeches. The babies who’s moms got the negative feedback (and who’s moms had the highest heart rates) also showed the most significant elevations in their stress levels.

Both studies show that another person’s stress can affect your own body in negative ways.

The Max Planck Institute study showed that the more emotionally attached you are to a stressed person, the more it affects you. The UCSF study showed that by just being around someone who is stressed out (and that someone is a person you are intimately connected to) can affect your physiology and put you into a more stressed state.

So what can you take away from this to make a change in your own life for the better?

Recognize that the people you spend your time with affect you, your body and your health. If they are stressed out, you can get stressed out too. This can inspire you to do one of two things:

1) You can remove yourself from the situation, the space or the relationship.

If you are watching a stressful interaction that you cannot change or diffuse yourself, stop watching that video or get out of the room. If your workplace is full of people that are constantly stressed out and continually complaining about, try to relocate yourself to opt to telecommute. If all your friend does is see the negative in things and won’t make any changes for the better, it may be time to distance yourself from them.

But like in these studies, many times the stress you feel is because someone you love and care about is stressed. You can’t just change the channel, move your desk, leave the room or even leave them. So then you can:

2) You can help that person through their stress, knowing that their stress is your stress.

You only feel “empathic stress” because you feel for them. Removing yourself just to protect your own self isn’t an option. If your loved one is having a difficult time with something, help them. Use the connection that is causing you to feel their stress to help them cope or overcome what is bothering them.

We are not designed to go through life alone. We are social beings and community is essential for health and happiness. These studies show the physiological connection between us. Our heart rates elevate when our loved one’s heart rate goes up. We secrete more stress hormones into our body when our loved one secretes more stress hormones into their body.

But this physiological response is generated from an emotional connection to another person. Whether it is our romantic partner, our mother or even a perfect stranger, we cannot help react when we see another person hurting. Rather than just bearing the weight of other people’s stress, reach out and lend a helping hand.

These studies show that not only does this help the person who is hurting or stressed, but it helps you as well.

About the Author

Dr. Jay Warren has been a prenatal and pediatric chiropractor for 17 years. He is also the Wellness Care Coordinator at the CAP Wellness Center in San Diego, CA where 90% of his practice is pregnant or postpartum women and babies under one year old. Dr. Jay is a proud member of the ICPA and APPPAH (the Association or Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health) and the host of the podcast “Healthy Births, Happy Babies” in iTunes. His online program, “Connecting with Baby” guides pregnant women through processes to strengthen maternal bonding for a happier pregnancy, gentler birth and easier post-partum experience. Dr. Jay is also the proud father of his 3 year old son, Niko who keeps him very busy (and happy) outside of the office.