Research is demonstrating that stress can be contagious across various populations. In a study completed by Waters, West, and Mendes (2014) results indicate that babies quickly pick up their mother’s stress and show corresponding physiological (cardiac) changes. West et al. (2014) findings demonstrate that emotions may be communicated through a variety of channels, such as odor, vocal tension, facial expression, or touch. This leads to questions of whether these findings are applicable to adults or among strangers? Can stress still be contagious beyond the intimate bond of mother and child?
Findings from Engert, Plessow, Miller, Kirschbaum, and Singer (2014) show that observing others in a stressful situation can make your body release the stress hormone cortisol. The results show that being around a loved one or a stranger that is stressed results in quantifiable stress reactions. This study involved having subjects paired with loved ones and strangers of the opposite sex, and then divided participants into two groups. One group underwent challenging math questions and an interview to emulate a stressful situation, whereas the other group of 211 participants observed the test. Only 5% of the participants that were involved in the stressful situation remained calm, while the other 95% showed signs of stress. Interestingly, 26% of observers had increased cortisol indicating empathetic stress. When directly observed, empathetic stressed increased significantly when the observer watched a loved-one experience stress. Additionally, empathetic stress increased when observers watched a stranger in a stressful situation via video transmission.
Overall, stress is a major health threat in today’s society; even still, the likelihood of coming into contact with stressed individuals is also prominent (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2014). Thus understanding the impact of stress and empathetic stress is important for developing prevention and/or intervention strategies. As Engert et al. (2014) suggest, we should be cautious of watching or observing stressful shows or other stimuli, as this may transmit stress to the viewers (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2014). Also, the results of the study show that emotional closeness is a facilitator but not necessary to the experience of empathetic stress. Respective of these studies, the authors conclude “stress has enormous contagion potential” (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2014).
Engert, V., Plessow, F., Miller, R., Kirschbaum, C., & Singer, T. (2014). Cortisol Increase in empathic stress is modulated by social closeness and observation modality. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 45, 192-201. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.04.005
Waters, S. F., West, T. V., & Mendes, W. B. (2014). Stress contagion: Physiological covariation between mothers and infants. Psychological Science, 25(4), 934-942. doi: 10.1177/0956797613518352
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2014). Your stress is my stress. Retrieved from http://www.mpg.de/research/stress-empathy
Dannie S. Harris, M.A., M.A., M.A.Ed., Ed.S.
WKPIC Practicum Trainee