Stress isn’t a disease, but it can affect your mental and physical well-being. When you experience stress, it is your body’s response to a situation that makes you feel anxious or uncomfortable. If someone close to you feels stressed, then it can affect you too. Believe it or not, stress can be contagious, and it is all to do with hormones.
A study paired participants with loved ones or with strangers, before subjecting their partners to stressful interviews while the partner watched. People who were watching loved ones experienced a 40% increase in cortisol levels (a stress hormone). People who were watching strangers had a 10% increase in cortisol levels. Even though they didn’t have a close relationship with the person being interviewed, they still felt empathy.
The study shows it can be hard to separate ourselves from other people’s problems because we want to help them, but taking a step back is extremely useful. When this next happens to you, try distancing yourself from the situation, even temporarily. For example, if a co-worker is stressed at work, spend some time with other colleagues who have more positive emotions. Stepping back will make it easier for you to provide constructive help to a colleague or to a loved one, while at the same time reducing your cortisol levels.
Although stress is contagious, paying attention to your emotions and setting boundaries can help to prevent catching other’s anxieties.