Why “Stress Is Contagious” Is Besides the Point


Time magazine recently wrote up a study conducted and funded by the Max Planck Institute in which researchers determined that stress is contagious (here’s their write-up). And while this study got a lot of attention (“Stress is contagious! Run!”), I believe it missed the point entirely and puts forth a very dangerous idea about stress.

Here’s what the study did: It gave a group of participants tough arithmetic tasks to work on while being assessed by people posing as analysts, while around 200 observers looked on, either via one-way mirror or via video. Those engaged with the math problems and being “judged” by analysts underwent considerable stress (with only a handful showing no signs of physiological stress).

Researchers reported that 26 percent of observers showed a bump in cortisol levels, and that this effect was particularly strong when an observer was watching his or her own significant other. And yet, even those watching complete strangers felt an effect (10 percent of that stress was ‘transmitted’). Whether they watched through a one-way mirror or via video, cortisol levels in observers increased significantly. What the researchers say is that this means stress is contagious.

And the story spread like wildfire.

But let’s hold on a second. What is news about this? Aside from the fact that the researchers put metrics to a hypothesis and were able to point to statistical significance of a thing? Because all it really did was underscore what we all already know: We are empathetic, social animals and we’re affected by what we observe and experience—directly or indirectly.

I argued, in my interview on CBS’s The Couch, that this kind of headline does nothing but create more fear around stress. When in fact, it’s this aspect of stress that makes us seek it out! Why else do we flock to thrilling, suspenseful movies and TV? Why is the heart-attack inducing series 24 or Breaking Bad or Walking Dead or any other award-winning shows and stories so appealing? Because we want that experience; we purposely jack up our stress levels—for entertainment! Because it’s fun!

Sure, watching Breaking Bad may stress you out in the short term, but I doubt it’s going to contribute to your own personal stress as you go about your business in the world. In fact, that hour-long episode may be the only break you have all day.

(Read about how thinking of stress as good changes everything.)

This idea is scarier than stress itself

The real fear is not that TV or other people will make you more stressed; it’s that you will continue to externalize your stress and blame other people, instead of taking charge of it yourself. What’s worse, if you fear that stress is like the flu, you’ll do the one thing you shouldn’t when stress looms: Push people away.

(Read how interpersonal support can improve stress levels.)

meQuilibrium’s Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatte, PhD, an expert on resilience, teaches that you don’t get stronger in the stress department on your own, but through your connection with other people. Sometimes that might include venting or complaining, but it’s also through listening, empathizing, and supporting each other through tough times. We don’t by and large want or expect other people to fix our problems; we want to be heard, to be loved.

Here’s how to stop letting fears of stress rule you.

See your empathy as a strength, not a weakness. Empathy may mean you can ‘feel’ others’ stress, sure, but it’s that capacity for empathy that gives you the ability to sense when someone needs help, and vice versa. We are social beasts, pack animals. And we are deeply wired to recognize we can’t go it alone.

Look inside, not outside. Stop blaming other people or circumstances for making you stressed. Acknowledge what it is, and take responsibility for your own stress response. You do that by owning up to the choices you make that either improve or lessen your ability to cope—as well as owning up to the vibe you put out in the world around you.

Flex your relaxation muscle. If you’re keyed up all the time, relaxation is not your natural state; you have to train yourself to do it. And that might mean scheduling time for a good sweat-inducing workout, or sitting quietly for 10 minutes of mindful meditation.

Spread something good. The good news is that stress isn’t the only thing that’s contagious; so is optimism, enthusiasm, positivity, and fun. Is there any other explanation for why Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” has been sitting at the top of the charts for weeks? Do yourself a favor and watch the video again. If you want to feel good stuff reflected back at you, you’ve got to put something good out there to begin with.

Read more about how to lower stress by managing expectations.

Find out how meQ can help you shift your stress levels–for good.