New study indicates stress can be contagious
In the American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America survey, 61% of respondents said they believe that stress management is very important, but 44% don’t think they’re doing enough to deal with their stress. What’s more, nearly 20% report that they don’t engage in any sort of stress management at all. If you count yourself among the ranks of frazzled Americans who aren’t doing enough to lower your stress levels, here’s another reason to make it a priority: a new study out of Germany has found that stress can actually be contagious.
The Effect of Empathetic Stress
It’s not surprising that one person’s bad mood and stress can rub off on others, but researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden found a way to measure this phenomenon. They found that for many people, watching others experience stress – whether in-person or by video – causes a spike in stress hormones in their own bodies. This is something the researchers call “empathetic stress.”
“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” said Veronika Engert, one of the authors of the study.
In the study, one group of participants was tasked with solving challenging math problems and answering difficult interview questions, while the other participants observed them, either through a one-way mirror or a video. Some of the 211 observers watched a loved one, while the others watched opposite-sex strangers.
Of course, the vast majority of those interviewed or given math questions had an increase in stress hormones, but 1 out of 4 observers had increased cortisol levels as well. The impact was the greatest when observing a loved one under stress, but it occurred with strangers too. Additionally, the effect was not much different when observers watched by video (24% of participants) than through the mirror (30%).
This study has a few interesting implications:
- Close to half of observers (40%) demonstrated signs of physical stress when watching loved ones endure stress. Think about what this means: The people closest to you are going to witness your stress the most – this means spouses, partners, and children – and they are also the ones who are most likely to “catch” your stress.
- If 10% of participants experienced empathetic stress when watching strangers, what does that mean for workplace environments? Colleagues aren’t necessarily loved ones, but they aren’t strangers either. They are people you most likely see and interact with several days a week, in an environment that’s very often high-stress. As American workers face more and more stress, it raises the question of whether some workplaces perpetuate a harmful cycle of stress among employees.
- If the effect of empathetic stress was almost as strong by video, this means that those dramatic TV shows we love may not be doing us many favors – especially if we’re tuning in close to bedtime! “Even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers,” Engert said. “Stress has an enormous contagion potential.”