how to tackle stress

by Julia Sidwell |
Published on

Did you know that stress can be contagious? Here’s how to combat the symptoms

One in four of us said we felt overwhelmed and unable to cope last year, but it’s not just our own problems that are making our heads spin.

If you’ve ever spent the day with a stressed loved one or colleague and come away feeling just as tense yourself, it’s likely you have experienced second-hand-stress — something that experts reveal is as contagious as the common cold.

Also known as emotional contagion, this neurological phenomenon refers to the way emotions spread as a result of observing or empathising with someone else’s stress.

Sally Brown, a psychotherapist, personal development coach and member of The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), says: ‘Everyone has the potential to be a “stress sponge” and absorb the stress from those around them, but empathic people are at greater risk.’

Unlike a cold that will eventually go away, second-hand stress can be harder to shake off, especially if exposed to the anxiety of others on a regular basis.

Catching stress

We tend to mirror or copy body language, speech, expressions, and behaviours of people that we like to show empathy and connection with them. For example, if you’re sitting opposite someone with their legs crossed and arms folded, chances are you’ll end up doing the same.

Anji McGrandles, mental wellbeing expert and founder of The Mind Tribe, says this is down to mirror neurons, which are specialised cells in the brain that play a crucial role in understanding and mimicking the behaviours and emotions of others.

‘Observing someone who is stressed can have an immediate effect upon our own nervous systems,’ explains Anji. ‘When we witness someone in a state of stress or distress, our brain’s mirror neurons are activated, causing us to experience similar emotional and physiological responses as the person we are observing. This can interfere with the body’s chemistry, which includes increased heart rate, elevated cortisol levels, and feelings of anxiety.’

When we are stressed or under a lot of pressure, our bodies become programmed to release signals to other people around us, warning them of the potential danger.

Our stress response is so sensitive that if one person is sending cues to another person, the other starts to mimic that.

‘Second-hand stress can be passed through facial expressions, voice frequency, odour and body language, so it’s easily spread,’ Anji explains.

Stranger danger

Second-hand stress is often passed on from people we know, but we can get it from strangers too.

‘In certain situations, you can also experience second-hand stress from strangers, particularly when you witness or hear about highly stressful or emotionally charged events,’ says Anji. ‘Media and news reports or documentaries about distressing events can evoke second-hand stress. Observing strangers in highly stressful public situations, such as a medical emergency or confrontation, as well as witnessing distressing posts on social media, can also be a trigger.’

Signs and symptoms

Second-hand stress shows up in your thinking — poor judgment, loss of objectivity, worrying, and asking what people think. It may affect how you’re feeling — moody, on edge, or unhappy. It can appear in the body — insomnia, headaches, upset stomach, or aching limbs. And in the way we act — nervous habits, substance abuse, overdoing activities, or sleeping too little or too much.

Anji explains: ‘You will notice a change in behaviours around people who stress you out. Pay attention to your own emotions and physical reactions when you are around these stressed individuals or in situations that trigger your stress.’

• For more information, follow Anji on Instagram @themindtribe

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us