Stress Is Contagious, but Here’s How We Can Avoid Infecting Each Other


Oct 8, 2019


Amid news of an imminent global pandemic, stress seems hopelessly mundane. And yet, over a lifetime (assuming you make it through the pandemic) stress is likely to have the most impact on your health — experiencing stress long term has been linked to cardiovascular problems, poor immunity, and more.

And even worse: stress is contagious. So, even if you, personally, at this very second, are not feeling overwhelmed … you never know what’s lurking in the person next to you.

Stress is contagious not in the pathogenic sense (there’s no microscopic infectious agent behind it) but in the empathetic, emotional sense, a bit like yawning.

Related on The Swaddle:

In 2014, a study by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences working jointly with Technische Universität Dresden, both in Germany, found watching someone undergo a stressful situation is enough to increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the observer.

“Stress has enormous contagion potential,” Veronika Engert, one of the study’s first authors, said in a statement at the time. She went on to point out some of the sources of contagious stress we face in life: TV reports and fictional shows that depict human suffering, caregiving for stressed or suffering family members.

And of course, from interacting with stressed colleagues. According to two 2018 surveys, nearly half of Indian employees report feeling stress of some kind and the proportion of Indian employees at high risk of suicide due to unmanaged stress was 8% of all counseling cases, up from 2% to 4% in 2016, reported the Economic Times.

Related on The Swaddle:

Why You Can’t Shut Your Mind Off Even When You Know You Need to Sleep

Indian corporates have started to respond, offering counseling and wellness programs to help employees cope with their stress. But while that might help individuals cope, it doesn’t actually relieve the stress. Add in exposure to stressed family members, and the potential for stress contagion is vast — practically pandemic level.

So, how can we manage stress so that it’s less contagious?

Writing in Harvard Business Review, author and senior leadership coach Kristi Hedges offers some suggestions. The first thing to do, to keep stress contained, is to identify the focal points of your stress. What incidents or interactions set you off? “What conditions caused me to feel stressed today? What about the situation felt important at the time? How was the situation meaningful to me?” Hedges writes, suggesting people keep stress journals that can help them arrive at the answers to these questions.

Once identified, the next step is to change your reaction to those stress triggers. How do they make you feel? What if you interpreted or reacted to those situations differently — perhaps with more distance/objectivity, or with more forgiveness for mistakes (your own or others’)? Once your reactions feel more manageable, then you can start focusing on solutions.

Related on The Swaddle:

Phone Stress Is a Real Thing and It Might Be Shortening Our Lives

But perhaps the biggest thing we can do to make sure our stress is not contagious is to stop talking about how stressed we are — and start talking about how we’re trying to deal with it. “In short, saying ‘I’m so stressed’ increases stress for other people. Plus, what we focus on gets stronger, so we can even increase our own stress by talking about it,” Hedges writes. “By sharing strategies you’re employing, you model for others that it’s acceptable to push back against stress instead of accepting it. As a bonus, if you state what you’re doing out loud, you’re more likely to follow through on your commitments.”

Some of these strategies might involve physical self-care — like a massage — or be more strategic — like purposefully avoiding answering work emails on the weekend. It will look different for everyone. But once we start dealing with our stress more positively and actively, and discussing the ways we’re doing it, we can stress less about spreading it to others. And if we keep struggling after all that, there’s always the option of seeking help from a professional therapist.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.