Can you 'catch' stress from other people?

image depicts a stressed asian couple looking at pieces of paper and a laptop
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Stress is something a majority of people will experience at some point in their life. According to the World Health Organization, stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. There are numerous events or experiences that can catalyze periods of stress, from starting a new job to having a child, but is it possible to catch stress from someone else? 

A 2014 paper in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology made headlines after its authors suggested that stress can be contagious. The authors wrote that just seeing another person in a stressful situation can make our own bodies release cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response. This phenomenon, dubbed “empathic stress,” tends to be more prevalent when seeing a loved one or a close friend in distress, the researchers suggested, but it can also occur when seeing a stranger suffering.

“It's definitely possible to [subconsciously] perceive another person's emotions, especially negative ones,” Tara Perrot, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Canada, told Live Science. “This would have been selected for in our evolutionary past as it would provide a non-verbal way to communicate danger and fear.”

Tara Perrot
Tara Perrot

Tara Perrot is a professor of psychology and neuroscience. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology and her doctorate in neuroscience from Western University in Canada. Her research focuses on understanding how events early in life shape adult stress-related behaviour and underlying neural mechanisms.

Emotions can “spread” from one person to another via “mirror neurons”, according to a 2013 review in the journal Current Biology. These are brain cells that activate upon seeing someone perform a particular action — a yawn, for example — and trigger a response that encourages reciprocation. This means that, if a person sees someone looking tired, they may begin to feel tired, and if they see someone looking stressed, they may unintentionally adopt their stressed state of mind.

Transmitting emotions is an important survival mechanism, Herbert said. “It activates responses in others that may help resolve not only a personal issue, but a more general one.” For example, if one person detects a dangerous situation and responds emotionally, then this signals and alerts others, he said. 

“If someone panics, they are in a stressed state,” said Joe Herbert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. “Panic can spread throughout a community, as can fear or anxiety, irrespective of whether there is a genuine cause,” he told Live Science.

This transference of emotions is a subconscious act, according to Perrot, and is not a solely human experience. “Other animals can perceive the emotions of members of their species,” Perrot said. “For example, rats that observe another rat undergoing a stressful experience show increases in stress hormone levels even without direct experience.”

While stress is something that most people attempt to avoid, it plays an important role for both humans and animals. However, as Perrot said, not all stress is equal. “The stress response is hugely beneficial,” she said. “It prepares our bodies and brains to deal with the stressor at hand. If a lion runs at you, you want to mount a strong stress response that liberates glucose from stores, increases heart rate, and decreases non-essential functions like digestion.” 

image depicts a stressed looking woman sat on the sofa. A woman touches her on the shoulder gently

(Image credit: Getty Images)

However, Perrot said, in modern humans, the stress response is often activated by psychological stressors, leaving stress hormones around for too long. “There are many daily hassles that people end up perceiving as stressful and the stress response can occur too often, which can be damaging to the body and brain,” she said.

A 2014 study in the journal Interpersona found that stress can, in some circumstances, be contagious, and concluded that a single stressed individual has the capacity to “infect” an entire office. So, is it possible to avoid catching another person’s stress? According to Perrot, it is all a matter of how someone approaches and assesses a given situation. 

“Every stress response begins with perception of the stressor,” Perrot said. According to Healthline, activities such as getting fresh air, doing breathing exercises and working out can all help to overcome, or at least reduce, the impact of appropriating someone else’s stress. 

Herbert believes that the key is seeing stress as divided into two components. 

“The stressor is the external or internal, for example a financial demand or an illness,” he said. “The stress response is how the individual reacts — both emotionally, but also physiologically (hormones, blood pressure etc).” The stress response is adaptive, Herbert said, and learning to control this could be the key to protecting oneself from another person’s stress.

“High empathy will increase the awareness of another’s emotion,” he said. “How this affects the onlooker will depend on circumstance. It might just elicit aid, but it could be stressful depending on the demand it causes on the second person. Good leaders and even parents can learn to not catch the stress of others, and instead simply deal with the situation at hand.”

Joe Phelan
Live Science Contributor

Joe Phelan is a journalist based in London. His work has appeared in VICE, National Geographic, World Soccer and The Blizzard, and has been a guest on Times Radio. He is drawn to the weird, wonderful and under examined, as well as anything related to life in the Arctic Circle. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Chester.