How does stress become contagious

Your stress is my stress too

Just observing stressful situations can trigger a physical stress response

Stress is contagious. It can be enough to watch another person in a stressful situation for your own body to release the stress hormone cortisol. Scientists come to these results in a large-scale cooperation project between the departments of Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences in Leipzig and Clemens Kirschbaum from the Technical University of Dresden. Empathetic stress occurred particularly often when observers were in a couple relationship with the stressed person and could follow the action directly through a pane of glass. But even if strangers could only be seen on a screen, it put some people on alert. In our society, which is characterized by stress, this empathically conveyed stress is a factor that cannot be neglected in the health care system.

Stress is one of the most important causes of illness today. It causes various psychological problems such as burnout, depression and anxiety. Even those who lead a relatively relaxed life come into constant contact with stressed people. Whether at work or on television: someone is always under stress and this can rub off on the environment. Not only felt, but also physically measurable as an increased concentration of the stress hormone cortisol.

“It was astonishing that we were actually able to measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release,” says Veronika Engert, one of the first authors of the study. Especially when you consider that in many studies it is not possible to activate the stress system by means of directly experienced stress. Empathic stress reactions could be independent (“representative stress”) or proportional (“stress contagion”) to the stress reactions of the actively stressed test persons. "So there seems to be a possibility of transference that triggers a stress response in us depending on how others feel."

In the stress test, the subjects had to struggle with difficult mental arithmetic and job interviews, while two supposed behavioral analysts assessed their performance. Only five percent of the directly stressed test subjects could not be disturbed, all the others showed a physiologically significant increase in the cortisol level.

Overall, 26 percent of observers who were not exposed to any stress themselves showed a physiologically significant increase in cortisol. The effect was particularly strong when the observer and the stressed person had a partnership relationship (40 percent), but even with complete strangers the stress still jumped over to ten percent of the observers. Emotional connectedness is therefore not a prerequisite for empathic stress.

If the observers were able to follow the action directly, 30 percent reacted stressedly. But even if the stress test only flickered on the screen, that was enough to drive up the cortisol levels in 24 percent of the observers. “That means that even TV shows that confront me with the suffering of others can transfer the stress to me,” says Engert. "Stress has an enormous contagious potential."

Stress is especially a problem when it becomes chronic. “A hormonal stress reaction naturally also makes sense in evolutionary terms. When they are exposed to danger, they also want their body to react with an increase in the stress hormone, ”explains Engert. “But consistently high cortisol levels are not good. In the long run, for example, the immune system and nerve cells suffer as a result. ”The potentially harmful consequences of empathic stress therefore particularly affect people in the helper professions or relatives of permanently stressed people. If you are constantly confronted with the suffering and stress of others, you have an increased risk of suffering from it yourself.

The results, however, dispel another prejudice: men and women reacted equally often with empathic stress. “On questionnaires, women rate themselves as more empathetic than men do. So far, however, this has not been proven in any experiment that used objective biological markers. ”Future studies should show how exactly stress is transmitted and what can be done to reduce the negative impact of stress on society.