Stress is Contagious

Our brains are designed to transmit emotions quickly to one another, because they often convey important information.

It is important to realize that stress travels rapidly from one person to the next

A study found when infants were held by their mothers who had just experienced a socially stressful event, the infants’ heart rates went up too. The message transferred via the mother’s pounding heart to the baby was of danger – and as a result, the baby avoided interacting with strangers.*

“You don’t even need to be in the same room with someone for their emotions to influence your behaviour. Studies show that if you observe positive feeds on social media, such as images of a pink sunset, you are more likely to post uplifting messages yourself. If you observe negative posts, such as complaints about a long queue at the coffee shop, you will in turn create more negative posts.”

“And so a reliable pattern emerges following terrorist attacks and financial market downturns – stress is triggered, spreading from one person to the next, which temporarily enhances the likelihood that people will take in negative reports, which increases stress further. As a result, trips are cancelled, even if the terrorist attack took place across the globe; stocks are sold, even when holding on is the best thing to do; and fearmongering political campaigns attract followers, even if they are not anchored in reality.”

“While it’s good to be on high alert during stressful episodes – like a car crash – being so all the time would be exhausting.
In some ways, many of us live as if we are in real danger, like firefighters on call, constantly ready to put out the flames of demanding emails and text messages, and respond to news alerts and social media feeds. Repeatedly checking your phone, according to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, is related to stress.”

“. . . a preprogrammed physiological reaction, which evolution has equipped us with to help us avoid famished predators, is now being triggered by a tweet. Tweeting, according to one study, raises your pulse, makes you sweat, and enlarges your pupils more than most daily activities.”

“The fact that stress increases the likelihood that we will focus more on alarming messages, together with the fact that it spreads like a tsunami, can create collective fear that is not always justified. This is because after a stressful public event, such as a terrorist attack or political turmoil, there is often a wave of alarming information in traditional and social media, which individuals absorb well, but that can exaggerate existing danger.”

“The good news, however, is that positive emotions, such as hope, are contagious too, and are powerful in inducing people to act to find solutions. Being aware of the close relationship between people’s emotional state and how they process information can help us frame our messages more effectively and become conscientious agents of change.”

*Wendy Berry Mendes, professor of emotion at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues

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