Is stress contagious?

Sunday, 31 August 2014 - 6:20am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Yes, it can be passed from person to person like a cold. Experts give their take

Speaking of the term contagious, the first thing that comes to our mind is cold and other infections. And on the cheerful side, laughter. But have you ever wondered if stress too could be contagious? The environment and the company of we people are in is bound to affect us at some level. Studies echo this too. A group of psychologists from Saint Louis University, US, claims that stress can be 'caught' from strangers. The path-breaking study shows that in some situations stress is contagious.

The study
The researchers wanted to analyse how susceptible strangers were to 'secondhand stress'. From a group of participants, some were asked some to perform a public speaking or mental arithmetic challenge while the others observed. The researchers measured cortisol levels and a stress-related salivary enzyme in the stressed speakers and the observers. They found that the stress response in the witnesses was 'proportional to that of their paired speakers and not influenced by gender'.

The researchers concluded that: Stress can be passed on through things like tone of voice, facial expressions, posture and even odour. "We have demonstrated that stress can be contagiously caught from targets to observers," the researchers wrote. 'To find that in some people, some of the time, you can elicit these responses just by sitting and watching someone else under stress was somewhat surprising to us,' Tony Buchanan, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Saint Louis University said.

Case in point
Thirty-five yearold Debashish Ghosh (name changed), was married to someone who was very high strung and hyper. He sought therapy because he felt that before marriage, he was a carefree guy who would enjoy life and not take things seriously. After seeing his spouse in stress, he has now become reflection of her. On small trivial things he would get upset and worried. Treatment goals for Debashish inloved the use of De-stress Management skills and also counselling for his wife, so that they can have better life together, recalls clinical psychologist and author Seema Hingorrany.

Expert speak
Psychologist Varkha Chulani agrees to an extent that stress is contagious. "Stress is rarely passed on in the way the experimenters suggested it, by watching others. The study said through paired interactions. That means when people were in close proximity to each other. So emotional upsetness is palpable when you are in close association with another. For eg. could be mother and child. If you have an over reactive mother who gets stressed during exams, there is a high probability that the child will also be influenced and react similarly. So using this example we could say that stress passes on but only in close encounters," she explains.

Who are most susceptible?
When we live to work with people around us who are always in stress and unhappy, we become like them subconsciously or unconsciously. People who are sensitive by nature are highly susceptible to stress. Their threshold in life to frustration tolerance is very limited. Also, people who have inadequate resources to manage stress like good friends, family support and good bonding with colleagues are susceptible to stress, warns Hingorrany.

Don't absorb the stress
Hingorrany shares the following tips:

Don't take people very seriously all the time.
Don't take things personally.
Dont internalise too much. try to look at the situation from external point of reference.
Know your strengths and weakness very well. Less chances to get stressed then.

Varkha Chulani guides how to spot a stress giver:

Over reactors tend to compound problems and not solve them.
People who make mountains of molehills.
People who are constantly complaining rather than doing.
Those who focus on trivia rather than on more significant stuff.
Those who sweat the small stuff.
Those who get worked up at the slightest of change.
Those who are unable to manage if their schedule gets a bit disturbed and they have to adjust or accommodate.

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