April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
It is well known that some things in life are contagious, such as social conditions like pregnancy or divorce. According to a new study from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden, stress is also contagious and can be damaging to one’s health. Simply observing another person in a stressful situation, according to their findings, is enough to make our own bodies release the stress hormone, cortisol.
In our fast-paced society, stress becomes a major health threat with a wide range of psychological (burnout, depression, and anxiety) and physiological (headaches, chest pain, fatigue and insomnia) problems. The Mayo Clinic also lists effects that stress can have on behaviors, including over / under eating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, and social withdrawal. People who live relatively peaceful and stress free lives themselves have constant contact with people suffering from stress – whether in real life or on television. This contagious stress, or empathic stress as the researchers call it, can affect the general environment in a quantifiable psychological manner through increased concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol.
“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” Veronika Engert, lead researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, said in a recent statement.
Engert’s surprise is due to the fact that previous studies have experienced significant difficulties inducing firsthand stress to begin with. Empathic stress reactions of the person observing were found to be independent of (“vicarious stress”) or proportional to (“stress resonance”) the stress reactions of the actively stressed individuals. “There must be a transmission mechanism via which the target’s state can elicit a similar state in the observer down to the level of a hormonal stress response.“
During the testing, subjects were divided into two groups. One group was tested for direct stress. They were asked to complete difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews, while two supposed behavioral analysts assessed their performance. The second group observed directly stressed individuals — partially through a one-way mirror and partially through video transmissions.
The team found that only five percent of those directly stressed were able to remain calm. The other 95 percent displayed a psychologically significant increase in cortisol levels.
In the observational group, 26 percent of those not exposed to any direct stress at all showed a significant increase in cortisol as well. When the observer and the stressed person being observed were partners in a couple relationship, the effect as particularly strong — 40 percent. But a relationship isn’t necessary for empathic stress to occur. Even when observing complete strangers, ten percent of the observers displayed stress themselves.
When the events where observed through a one-way mirror, 30 percent of the observers experienced a stress response. Virtual observation through video transmission effected 24 percent. “This means that even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers,” says Engert. “Stress has enormous contagion potential.”
The effects of stress magnify when it becomes chronic. “A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course. When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol,” explained Engert. “However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good. They have a negative impact on the immune system and neurotoxic properties in the long term.” For example, people who work as caregivers or the family members of someone who is chronically stressed have an increased risk for the potentially harmful side effects of empathic stress.
The researchers also found that men and women suffer from empathic stress with equal frequency, despite common perceptions otherwise. “In surveys however, women tend to assess themselves as being more empathic compared to men’s self-assessments. This self-perception does not seem to hold if probed by implicit measures.”
The research team intends to focus their future studies on revealing exactly how the stress is transmitted and what can be done to reduce its potentially negative influence on society.
Findings of this research were publish April 17, 2014 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.