Why stress is contagious

(A version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post in 2016)

We often view emotions as contained within the individual, sitting privately in our own minds or in the minds of others. However, emotions felt by one group or individual have a powerful influence on the emotional states of others (psychologists call this ‘affect contagion’ or ‘emotional contagion’). Emotions have the ability to ripple out in both constructive and destructive ways; happiness is contagious, but so is anxiety.

Think about a group of small children being overcome with excitement to the point of hysteria or one person in a group with a low mood bringing the rest of the group down. We know that yawning is contagious, even if the reasons for this are still not fully understood, we now also know that emotions are also infectious.

A 2014 study found that mothers’ stressful experiences are contagious to their infants and that the anxiety caused by such experiences can reciprocally influence both mother and infant, so stressful mothers have stressful babies which in turn causes more stress in mothers.

But it turns out that these teachers may actually be passing their own stress onto their students.

In a 2016 study, researchers found that teachers suffering from occupational burnout tend to have students who suffer from high levels of anxiety, indicating that teacher and student stress are linked. This study is particularly interesting because instead of using self-completion questionnaires to measure levels of anxiety in students, it used biological markers, namely the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

When we experience stress a system known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (or HPA axis) becomes active. The HPA axis then secretes cortisol and by measuring the levels of cortisol in the blood or saliva, researchers can gauge levels of stress and anxiety; the higher the stress level, the more cortisol is secreted.

In studies of pre-school children, high levels of cortisol have been found during increased levels of teacher-pupil conflict while lower levels of conflict predict a decrease in cortisol. Similarly, less academically successful teenagers who displayed poor behaviour have been found to have higher concentrations of cortisol; they’re actually more stressed.

It’s a similar picture in children excluded from their friendship groups and teenagers who have been victims of bullying. So we can confidently conclude that cortisol is a good indication that we’re suffering from stress.

In the most recent study, those teachers who scored highly on measures of burnout tended to have students with higher levels of cortisol in their saliva, in other words, stressed out teachers have stressed out students. So the much of the anxiety we see in young people could well have originated in others and then ‘spread’ like a virus.

Adults are better at identifying and tacking stress than children and teenagers, so it’s worth talking through anxieties with young people. The existence of stress contagion should also motivate parents and those who work closely with young people to become more aware of their own emotional states. Tackling our own levels of stress (and those of our employees) reduces the risk of those around us suffering the same symptoms.

On the brighter side, affect contagion also suggests that your positive mood can make those around you more positive. Strong social support such as having a family or friends that you can turn to are good indications of well-being and general happiness as are supportive colleagues and emotionally intuitive bosses.

Tips to help you cope with stress.

Recognise the symptoms:

If your quality of sleep is poor, you have become more irritable than usual or you’re losing interest in the things you once found enjoyable, you could be suffering from a stress or anxiety related problem. Children with anxiety might also find that they have problems concentrating or retaining new information.

Circles of support:

Do you know who you can turn to if you need emotional support? People with strong social support networks such as close family and friends report higher levels of well-being and happiness. Identify those around you who are good listeners and non-judgemental. If you’re a parent, encouraging your child to speak honestly and openly about their anxieties and fears can help them to regulate their emotions more successfully.

Random Acts of Kindness:

Carrying out kind deeds helps to stimulate stress-busting hormones. Simply saying good morning to a stranger can lift the spirits of both the giver and the receiver. People who are heavily involved in charity work or who are employed by non-profit organisations often report higher levels of well-being. Getting your children involved in helping the community can help protect them from anxiety as well.

Learn to breath:

Being aware of our breathing can slow the heart rate and reduce feelings of anxiety. Meditation or mindfulness works for some people but for other just concentrating on breathing for a few moments each day can help reduce stress.

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