New research shows stress is contagious

In the throes of winter, many of us are concerned with disease and illness prevention. We wash and sanitise our hands to avoid transmitting germs to our children, and we encourage our friends, family members and co-workers to do the same. However, while protecting ourselves and our loved ones from illness is undeniably important, there is a more insidious condition plaguing our communities that may be just as communicable: stress.

The research is clear: Stress is contagious

According to a recent study conducted by psychologists at Saint Louis University, stress is just as easy to catch as a cold or the flu. Researchers asked study participants to perform a stress-inducing activity, such as solving a complex math problem or speaking in front of an audience. A second group of participants looked on while the task was being completed.

The researchers found the observing participants showed elevated levels of stress after watching a fellow human complete the anxiety-inducing activity. Participants' stress levels were determined based on their cortisol (often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’) levels and heart rates.

“To find that in some people, some of the time, you can elicit these responses just by sitting and watching someone else under stress was somewhat surprising to us,” Tony Buchanan, associate professor at Saint Louis University’s Department of Psychology, told ABC News.

Of course, this topic has been studied before. A study conducted by the University of California found mothers who were separated from their babies and then asked to participate in a stress-inducing activity were likely to transmit their anxiety levels to their children. When reunited with their stressed mothers, the babies were likely to mirror the parents’ elevated heart rates.

What does this tell us about stress and the human body?

Stress isn’t just an emotional state, it’s a physical one as well. When we are stressed, our bodies secrete cortisol as part of a fight-or-flight cocktail that diminishes our inhibitions and encourages us to take risks – great for helping our paleolithic ancestors manoeuvre their way out of dangerous situations, but not so great for those of us trying to adhere to a healthy diet. If we are stressed and our cortisol levels elevated, we are likely to make impulsive decisions about our health.

Consistently elevated stress levels are also known to weaken the immune system. Anxiety and stress can lead to sleep deprivation, emotional eating (which can interfere with our attempts at eating a balanced, healthful diet), and negative interactions in our personal relationships.

How can we minimise the spread of stress?

Now that we know it’s possible to spread stress to others, we must take responsibility for our own stress levels. By doing so, we’ll avoid transmitting stress to our co-workers, partners, friends and family members.

Meditation and deep breathing are great stress combatants. As trite as it may sound, taking a few moments to close your eyes and count to 10 when you feel stress coming on can help slow your heart rate and stabilise the secretion of cortisol. You may also want to incorporate a holistic relaxing activity, such as yoga or massage, into your weekly routine.

You can also help maintain balance within your body by doing what you can to keep your blood pressure levels in check. Regular exercise and a diet containing moderate levels of cholesterol will go a long way toward helping you stay calm.

Finally, do your best to get an adequate amount of sleep each night. A well-rested person is more likely to meet stressful situations with calm and rational behaviour. If you suffer from insomnia, night terrors or other sleep disorders, consider herbal supplements that will support restful sleep. Getting into a nightly routine (ideally devoid of computer or TV stimulation) will also help calm your body and mind before bed.

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Sources

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2014/04/28/can-secondhand-stress-be-contagious/

http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/stress-is-contagious-us-study-reveals-20140630-zsr8p.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16002223

http://www.slu.edu/colleges/AS/cnslab/research/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1