New research from Germany reinforces an idea that we intuitively know already – that stress is contagious.
The researchers (Engert et al., 2014) noted that simply witnessing someone of the opposite sex in a stressful situation triggered the stress hormone cortisol in the observer. This “empathic stress” happened on average 26% of the time.
Who had the strongest response? People who had the strongest bond emotionally (partners / couples) showed an empathic stress response 40% of the time. Observers who witnessed “strangers” were triggered only 10% of the time.
Note that in the experiment the participants were not actively involved in the situation, thus this “second-hand stress” came as a result of their witnessing of other’s stress. The research team’s first author, Veronika Engert, reports: “Stress has enormous contagion potential.”
Another interesting outcome from this research demonstrated that men and women’s empathic stress response was fairly similar (23% for men vs. 27% for women) which contradicts the prevailing social beliefs.
The “witnesses” were either watching through a two-way mirror or seeing it streamed electronically. And although there were some small differences in effect size (30% vs. 24%), both proved to be impactful. This has implications for how we experience visual media (television, movies, etc.). How much stress is transmitted every day? And are consumers even aware of the consequences of their behaviours? The next time you thing of engaging in some media bingeing (multiple episodes of Game of Thrones consecutively) you may want to reconsider!
The impact of stress is widely recognized as a major physical and mental health threat, especially when it becomes chronic. It is a significant factor in such things as anxiety, depression, and interpersonal challenges, among many others.
(If you are curious, the stressful situations that the observers witnessed were a person doing a math test and a mock job interview. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 35 and the recruited couples had been together for at least 6 months. And only 5% of the people in the stressful situations were not made to feel stressed by these methods.)
I personally find the most interesting part of the research to be the fact that more people were not triggered! In my next blog article I will write about the implications of "second-hand stress" for families and couples.
Jeff Ross, MA RCC
Jeff is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) and does couples counselling and individual counselling in Vancouver, BC. His passions include family, therapy, education, athletics and coaching.
If you have a comment or question about this post or any other, please feel free to join the discussion or send him a private and confidential email. Let us know what Resonates with you!