Did you say contagious?

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We’ve been hearing it perhaps a lot, stress is a neurobiological reaction to an event perceived as danger, aggression, or threat to one’s well-being, equilibrium, and stability. When continuous or prolonged in time, stress becomes a chronic condition leading to a series of symptoms and conditions such as depression and insomnia, as well as heart, digestion, and skin problems, among others.

We might all have experienced, at a point or another, the stressful “vibes” of someone close to us and felt stressed as a consequence. Well, turns out, that stress IS actually a contagious phenomenon proven thanks to research conducted by Veronika Engert and her colleagues at the Max-Planck Institute of neurology and cognitive science at Leipzig and the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, and published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology magazine.

Empathy can be an aggravating factor of “passive stress”

According to this study, the simple fact of observing a stressed person or situation might raise our cortisol level, one of the markers of stress (and also a marker of cancer pathologies…). Some of the findings of this study are as follows:

  • Stress is encountered also if we are not the person being under stress; living in a stressful context can actually be compared to being a non-smoking person in a room filled with smokers. It is thus useful to learn how to protect ourselves against “passive stress”;
  • Empathy can be an aggravating factor of “passive stress” :-o You are not misreading! In 26% of the cases, an increase in cortisol levels was measured in individuals observing people encountering a stressful event. Getting into more details, this proportion increases to 40% for individuals with an emotional link to the observed persons, against only 10% in the absence of an emotional link;
  • A significant increase of cortisol levels is measured not only when the observation is direct (individuals present at the scene) but also when it is indirect (watching a video of the scene or listening to a recount of it). TV programs reporting stressful facts, as much as colleagues narrating stressful events, might lead to “passive stress” contagion.

As such, stressful empathic exchanges might have important implications in developing stress related disease, sickness, or illness, let alone impacts on the performance of team members operating in stressful contexts.

Next time someone tries to submerge us with his stress, let us remember that stress is contagious and that we can protect ourselves from it ;-) What about taking a “breather” and fresh air for more serenity then?