Humans have a sophisticated ability to pick up on stress cues from others. Fortunately, not all stress is bad.
Your boss thunders down the office hallway in a foul mood and suddenly, you find yourself on edge, too. Or maybe after speaking tersely to your partner at the dinner table, you notice your kids using the same tone with each other.
Stress — that umbrella term for negative emotions like worry, anxiety, and frustration — is contagious. Much like a common cold, you can “catch” it from other people. And just like a virus, it can leave you feeling (emotionally) wiped out.
As part of his research into stress and behavior, Tony Buchanan, PhD, co-director of the Neuroscience Program at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, has collected data from thousands of people in a task called the “Trier Social Stress Test.”
During each test, college students are recruited to stand up in front of a group of strangers and give a public speech, then asked to compute some tough arithmetic — in their heads. It’s devised to be stressful, right down to the impassive expressions of the research assistants who watch.
As a result, participants become flustered, says Buchanan. They make errors with their math. They forget the “right” words they want to use. And although for each experiment, his role is only that of an observer, Buchanan admits: “I started feeling bad myself.”
His reaction isn’t an anomaly. As humans, we’ve always had a vested biological interest in picking up on how others around us are feeling.
“Some social cohesion is required in animals such as ourselves that live in groups,” Buchanan said. “If one member of the group detects a threat, it’s advantageous if the others pick up on it as well.”
Cavemen who ignored one of their own frantically jumping up and down and pointing outside, may have been devoured by a bear-sized hyena. Those who paid quick attention were the ones who stayed alive.
“We’re social creatures and our survival, from an evolutionary point of view, very much depends on our ability to read others, whether they be friend or foe,” agreed Dr. Sue Varma, PC, FAPA, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Others’ intentions are made known to us in a variety of ways, particularly through how they express emotion and how they handle stress.”
When researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) collected saliva samples from over 400 elementary school students, they found that in classrooms where teachers felt “burned out,” students had high levels of cortisol, aka the body’s “stress hormone.”
The study’s investigators couldn’t decipher which came first: stressed-out kids or stressed-out teachers. Either way, the consequences run deeper than catching someone else’s bad mood for a few hours. In this particular case, UBC researchers pointed to concerns like learning difficulties and mental health issues.
And no one knows how long the effects of this stress contagion may last.
As one of the researchers put it: “Other people’s experiences or stresses may be changing us in a way that we don’t fully understand.”
So far, no one’s come up with a stress vaccine to get in your arm every year like a flu shot. Until that happens, the burden of staying emotionally healthy falls largely on you. Luckily, experts agree that certain strategies can help. Most are far easier than you may think.
To stave off stress:
1. Block out the negative
“We all have ‘mirror neurons’ — a collection of brain cells that can mimic any emotion we come across automatically,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. So just as you might block a mirror to prevent light reflecting on it, you can attempt to block your brain’s mirrors.
To do so, envision something you love or that makes you laugh before you enter a situation you predict will be stressful. “Now you have an authentic reason to smile. It’s not the person in front of you. It’s what is in your head,” Naidoo said.
No time to prepare but want to ensure that you exit the emotional exchange relatively unscathed? Hone in on one positive thing during the interaction, suggests Naidoo. Even saying aloud, “I love your shoes” — although you may dislike everything else about this particular person — sets the tone and allows your positive emotions to take precedence.
2. Get some fresh air
“Try to physically distance yourself from the source of the negative contagion,” suggested psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide.” “The farther you are from the source, the less the effects will be.”
Heading outside, or simply looking at nature-inspired scenes, may be your wisest choice. Research shows that being in nature has the ability to increase feelings of well-being while reducing your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
Can’t take a break? Even keeping a plant nearby can effectively help to absorb some of your stress.
3. Talk to someone you trust
Remember that aforementioned experiment in which nervous mice stressed out their partners? The study’s investigators found that this “ripple effect” could be reversed by social interactions. Granted, it only helped female mice — not the males — but other research shows that social support reduces stress in humans.
Just make sure to vent your concerns to someone you trust.
4. Set clear boundaries
“Think about separating yourself physically from the [stressed out] person until he or she has a chance to calm down or vent to someone else,” advises psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.”
“If they must vent to you, email or phone is more manageable than being in someone’s presence while they’re venting.”
5. Take a mental step back
Imagine yourself as a detached observer, suggests Sherry Cormier, PhD, a psychologist, certified bereavement trauma specialist, and stress management consultant. “Practice compassionate detachment. Be attentive, kind, and respectful, but not so emotionally involved that you feel responsible for [another person’s] problem.”
This strategy helps, Cormier explained, because “you don’t pressure yourself to fix something that’s outside of your control.”
6. Remember to breathe
When we take on others’ stress, our breathing becomes more rapid, Cormier said. When you feel yourself getting worked up, pay attention to the length of your exhales and inhales.
“Try to breathe less than 12 breaths a minute,” Cormier advised. “Slower respirations decrease the body’s stress response.”
7. Build up your emotional immune system
To do that, you’ll need a healthy self-care regimen. “Invest time in finding things to do that relax and recharge you, and which you can do routinely,” said Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW, a therapist and social worker. “It doesn’t have to be extravagant but it does need to be purposeful and meaningful to you.”
Whether it’s yoga, woodworking, or having a weekly game night with friends, find something you find fulfilling. Then actually pursue it on a regular basis. If you’re exposed to stress when you haven’t been taking care of yourself, “you’ll find that you’re more irritable than usual and have a lower tolerance for frustration,” Powell said.
8. Look ahead
When you’re in the thick of a stressful interaction, start planning what you can do afterward to decompress, Lombardo suggested.
Sign up online for a spinning class? Arrange to meet a friend for dinner? Imagine how good it’ll feel to go home and hug your kids? Remind yourself there really is light at the end of your stress tunnel.
9. Work up a sweat
Caught some stress despite your best efforts to steer clear? Exercise may be the fastest way to get out of your funk. Physical activity triggers your body to release endorphins — “feel good” chemicals that serve as your body’s natural painkillers. Even five minutes of aerobic activity can reduce your anxiety and help you better cope with stress.
10. Put pen to paper
Putting your emotions into words can also help you slough off a stressful event. Don’t worry about crafting a literary masterpiece. Instead, try writing nonstop for a few minutes about your feelings.
Doing so can help you organize your thoughts and better cope with your emotions. One theory why? Once down on paper, these ruminations are no longer playing on an endless loop inside your head.
Remember, sometimes catching someone’s stress can be a good thing — even though you’re not an early human simply trying to ensure your own survival.
For instance, if you’re on deadline to finish an important work project, you may benefit from pulling an all-nighter with your stressed out co-workers rather than trying to go it alone at home.
“There’s a kind of stress called eustress that keeps you on task, helps you to avoid procrastination, and makes you more productive,” Naidoo said. “When this signifies urgency or excitement, and it’s contagious, it can help the group as a whole.”