Science Says Stress Is Contagious

Stress Relief

Story at-a-glance -

  • Stress is highly contagious. Simply observing someone else in a stressful situation typically elicits an empathic stress response in the observer
  • Empathic stress can be felt whether you’re observing a stranger or an intimate partner, and via direct observation or television
  • Happiness is contagious too. People who are surrounded by many happy people are more likely to become happy in the future
  • While stress may damage your health, positive thoughts are able to prompt changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief
  • While you can create happiness artificially by taking drugs or drinking alcohol, for instance, the same endorphin and dopamine high can be achieved via healthful habits like exercise, laughter, hugging and kissing, sex, or bonding with your child

By Dr. Mercola

If you're stressed out and you can't put your finger on why, it might be worth considering the company you keep. New research shows that stress is highly contagious, not just in how you feel but in the way your body responds physically as well.

If you surround yourself with others who are stressed (either by choice or circumstance), it's probably affecting your mental and physical health. And get this… the same holds true for watching stressful situations on television.

'Astonishing' Demonstration of Empathic Stress

The new research, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology,1 revealed that simply observing someone else in a stressful situation typically elicits an empathic stress response in the observer.

For instance, when observing stressed participants (who were asked to solve difficult arithmetic tasks and engage in interviews) through a one-way mirror, 30 percent of the observers experienced a stress response in the form of an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.

When the observer had a romantic relationship with the stressed participant, the emphatic stress response was even stronger, affecting 40 percent. However, even when observing a stressed stranger, 10 percent of observers felt similarly stressed. The stress response was transmitted not only when observers watched the event live, through a one-way mirror, but also via video transmission.

About 24 percent of the observers had increased cortisol levels when they watched a televised version of the stressful event. One of the study's researchers noted that stress has "enormous contagion potential" and called their results "astonishing:"2

"The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing… 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… even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers."

Why Your Health May Suffer from Empathic Stress

If you're often around stressed-out people, or you choose to watch stressful programming on TV, your health could suffer. Your stress level is a major player in your overall health, impacting your risk of chronic health conditions like heart disease, depression, and obesity.

But unlike other more obvious risk factors, like over-indulging in junk food or not exercising, stress is more insidious, subtly sneaking up on you over time, increasing your risk of health problems even as you don't noticeably feel sick or realize that your chronically stressed-out state is slowly zapping away your vitality.

Stress turns ugly when it is either extremely severe, such as facing combat or another traumatic scenario, or long-term.

It is the latter that poses a risk to many Americans, who live in a chronically elevated state of stress and anxiety – and often pass that stressful state on to those around them. Over time, chronic stress may impair your immune system and cause a number of detrimental events in your body, including:

Decreased nutrient absorption Elevated cholesterol Increased food sensitivity
Decreased oxygenation to your gut Elevated triglycerides Heartburn
As much as four times less blood flow to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism Decreased gut flora populations Decreased enzymatic output in your gut – as much as 20,000-fold!


Further, when your body remains in a stress-induced "fight-or-flight" mode for too long, one of the most common consequences of this scenario is that your adrenal glands, faced with excessive stress and burden, become overworked and fatigued. This can lead to a number of related health conditions, including fatigue, autoimmune disorders, skin problems, and more.

Stress has also been linked to cancer by down-regulating immunosurveillance, potentially triggering the growth of tumors, and even activating multidrug resistance genes within cancer cells. In fact, stress, and by proxy your emotional health, is a leading factor in the majority of diseases or illnesses you can think of.

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Birds Have a Unique Way of Handling Stress Better Than Humans

Stress responses in birds (and all vertebrates) are remarkably similar to those that occur in humans. The same hormones are involved, including increases in corticosteroids (corticosterone in birds is basically the same as cortisol in humans).

Also, like (many) humans, birds live a stressful existence, foraging for food, breeding and raising offspring, facing possible predation, and migrating into incredibly unpredictable environments. Interestingly, researchers with the University of California Davis' Birds and Seasonality Project have found that certain songbirds, including Smith's Longspurs and White Crowned Sparrows, which migrate to the Arctic to breed, have developed a way to alter their stress response.3

The Arctic is clearly a very stressful, challenging environment, which would ordinarily prompt an extreme stress response. But the researchers found that the birds are able to dampen, and in some cases, completely "turn off" their stress responses, which essentially allows them to raise their nestlings in the extreme conditions (if a high stress response persisted, it might prompt the birds to abandon their nests). The birds appear to be among one of few vertebrates with this ability, although the researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how the birds essentially flip off their "stress response switch."

Happiness Is Contagious, Too

If stress is contagious, it would seem plausible that happiness would be contagious, too, and research shows it very much is. One of the latest studies toward this end examined the emotional content of one billion Facebook posts and suggested that while both positive and negative emotions seem to be contagious, positive emotions are actually more contagious than negative emotions.4 Other research has shown that people who are surrounded by many happy people are more likely to become happy in the future. The effect applies not only to those in close contact with the happy person, but also extends out to three degrees of separation.5

For instance, in relation to one happy person:

  • The spouse has an eight percent increased chance of happiness
  • The next-door neighbor has a 34 percent increased chance of happiness
  • A friend who lives within a mile has a 25 percent increased chance of happiness

Also like stress, happiness alters your physical health, although in a positive instead of negative way. Positive thoughts and attitudes are able to prompt changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief. One study found, for instance, that happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.6

It's even been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes! A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.7 This falls into the realm of epigenetics—changing the way your genes function by turning them off and on.

What Happens to Your Cells When You Experience Happiness?

Positive emotions like happiness, hope, and optimism prompt changes in your body's cells, even triggering the release of feel-good brain chemicals. While you can create happiness artificially by taking drugs or drinking alcohol, for instance, the same endorphin and dopamine high can be achieved via healthful habits like exercise, laughter, hugging and kissing, sex, or bonding with your child. If you're wondering just how powerful and effective this can be, a 10-second hug a day can lead to biochemical and physiological reactions in your body that can significantly improve your health. According to one study, this includes:8

Lower risk of heart disease Stress reduction Fight fatigue
Boost your immune system Fight infections Ease depression


According to Dr. Marianna Pochelli, a doctor of naturopathic medicine:9

"As far as your brain, every thought releases brain chemicals. Being focused on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive forcefulness, slows it down, and can go as far as dimming your brain's ability to function, even creating depression. On the flip side, thinking positive, happy, hopeful, optimistic, joyful thoughts decreases cortisol and produces serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being.

This helps your brain function at peak capacity. Happy thoughts and positive thinking, in general, support brain growth, as well as the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in your prefrontal cortex (PFC), which serves as the integration center of all of your brain-mind functions."

These physical changes in your cells lead to multiple net benefits, including:10

  • Stimulating the growth of nerve connections
  • Improving cognition by increasing mental productivity
  • Improving your ability to analyze and think
  • Affecting your view of your surroundings and increasing attentiveness
  • Leading to even more happy thoughts

A Simple Strategy for Boosting Your Happiness

Practicing "mindfulness" means that you're actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now, helping you to keep your internal focus. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you're mindful you're living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications. Mindfulness can help to reduce stress-induced inflammation, and it's a strong example of how you can harness your own sense of power and control to achieve what you want in life, including a more positive, happier mental state. Simple techniques such as the following can help you to become more mindful:

  • Pay focused attention to an aspect of sensory experience, such as the sound of your own breathing
  • Distinguish between simple thoughts and those that are elaborated with emotion (such as "I have a test tomorrow" versus "What if I fail my test tomorrow and flunk my entire class?")
  • Reframe emotional thoughts as simply "mental projections" so your mind can rest

Still, for many, happiness can be a poorly defined, elusive goal. One way to think about happiness is to define it as "whatever gets you excited." Once you've identified that activity, whatever it is, you can start focusing your mind around that so you can integrate more of it into your daily life. If you feel stuck and don't know where or how to start, I suggest reviewing these 22 positive habits of happy people.

Is Stress Holding You Back? Try This Technique to Set Yourself Free

It's difficult to be happy when you're consumed by stress, which is why regular stress management is crucial. For some, this might include staying away from negative or overly stressed individuals, or at the very least turning off the nightly news if it is too upsetting, to avoid feeling empathic stress. Ultimately, however, what you do for stress relief is a personal choice, as your stress management techniques must appeal to you and, more importantly, work for you. If a round of kickboxing helps you get out your frustration, then do it. If meditation is more your speed, that's fine, too.

Even having a good cry now and then may be beneficial, as tears that are shed due to an emotional response, such as sadness or extreme happiness, contain a high concentration of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) — a chemical linked to stress. One theory of why you cry when you're sad is that it helps your body release some of these excess stress chemicals, thereby helping you feel more calm and relaxed. Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be very effective as well, by helping you to actually reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life.

This is important as, generally speaking, a stressor becomes a problem when:

  • Your response to it is negative
  • Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances
  • Your response lasts an excessively long time
  • You're feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered, or overworked

When you use EFT, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto specific meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem -- whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, etc. -- and voice positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear the "short-circuit" -- the emotional block -- from your body's bioenergy system, thus restoring your mind and body's balance, which is essential for optimal health and the healing of chronic stress. You can view a demonstration below.