Is it stress season?
If you’ve ever encountered a stressed-out human, there’s a chance you’ve caught a case of “someone else’s stress.” It’s not bad enough that you have your own daily barrage of stressors coming your way. From work worries to the current events in the world, there’s a constant onslaught of stress waiting to rile you up. Rising living costs, the emotional toll of caregiving for others, a to-do list that just won’t quit. And, as if your own stress levels weren’t high enough, you can also catch a case of second-hand stress from someone else.
Here’s what science says about the contagion of stress and ways you can ward against it.
How Is Stress Contagious?
It turns out: stress is contagious. And not in an “I’m an empath and sensitive to other people’s emotions” way.
Rather, stress is physically contagious.
Behold: the fascinating ways we can come into contact with other people’s stress.
You Can Touch Stress
Researchers can detect levels of the stress hormone cortisol in sweat and saliva. This means you could be near someone who is excreting sweat hormones through their skin and “pick up” those stress hormones yourself.
Eww, you’re thinking. You would never touch someone else’s sweat. But you might touch their skin, unaware of the nearly imperceptible layer of sweat on someone’s hand or arm. Or you may touch a surface they’ve previously touched in the office, your home, or the gym.
And we’re no strangers to the many ways saliva can be transferred: kissing, sneezing, singing, coughing, and talking can send saliva droplets ricocheting into the air.
Coming into physical contact with someone else’s secreted cortisol is only one way you could be exposed to second-hand stress.
It turns out, our bodies are built for sensing stress.
You Can Smell Stress
Humans can communicate through scent like other animals. We just do it on a more subconscious level. While we may not have the powerful olfactory prowess of our canine companions, we still can smell a number of emotions from other humans. Research has shown that our noses can pick up on emotions such as happiness, fear, disgust, anxiety, sadness, and stress.
You Can See Stress
Sometimes all you need to pick up on stress is to see someone else displaying visual stress cues. Researchers replicated a typical stressful scenario—impromptu public speaking—and measured the cortisol levels of both speakers and observers. It’s unsurprising that being put into a sudden public speaking situation was stressful for the speakers. What was surprising was the elevated cortisol levels discovered in the observers, the people who were watching the speakers flounder through their stress-inducing moments.
Similar research has shown that your stress response can increase even further when watching a loved one being put into a stressful situation.
How To Avoid Second-Hand Stress
Do you want to avoid picking up someone else’s second-hand stress? While there’s no tried-and-true method for avoiding stress, there are research-backed solutions that can help you build up a better system for managing it. The more stress-resilient your body and mind can be, the less you have to worry about the impact of other people’s stress.
Building a Stress-Resistant Body
Stress can have negative physical effects on your body. But that means you can also use your body to build up resistance to stress.
Physical activity can help build more emotional resilience. In one study, researchers found that regular exercisers experienced a less severe drop in mood when exposed to acute stress. Exercise can lower your body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, while increasing brain chemicals responsible for elevating your mood.
The physical effects of stress can make your body require more oxygen, energy, and nutrients. But when you’re all stressed out, you’re likely to crave comfort foods full of sugar and fat. Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can cause junk-food cravings and the accumulation of belly fat. And then that extra belly fat can lead to the production of even more cortisol. It’s a downward cycle with no apparent exit ramp. Focus on a healthy diet and avoid stress-soothing with junk foods. Find healthy alternatives to your favorite sweet treats if you absolutely need to indulge.
Building a Stress-Resistant Mind
There’s no one single correct way to meditate, so if you haven’t been able to really embrace a regular meditation practice, don’t give up. You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor chanting to yourself for an hour to meditate.
You can try meditating sitting up, lying down, walking, or engaging in any activity.
The key to meditating is to take a certain amount of time and focus on a single point of awareness. For many people, this is a focus on their breath.
Deep, slow breathing sends a signal to your body that all is well. Your brain and body see it as relaxation and safety signals. When your breathing is rapid and shallow, on the other hand, it sends stress signals to your brain. Your brain and body interpret rapid shallow breathing as a danger signal.
Simply by focusing on your breathing for 5 to 10 minutes, and maintaining your focus on taking deep, full breaths, you can help build a more stress-resistant mind for the future and send immediate safety signals to your body.
Yes, stress is contagious, and you’re at risk of catching second-hand stress every day. There’s no avoiding it: stress is everywhere, and stressed-out people are on the rise. But you can build up a resilience to stress. By focusing on mindfulness meditation practices, daily exercise, and a nutrient-dense diet, you can help keep other people’s stress at arms-length and develop resilience against whatever stress may come your way.