Stress Can Be Contagious, Researchers Find

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LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) — If you’re calm and collected but the guy or gal in the cubicle next door sweats about deadlines all day, watch out. That stress can be contagious.

This is according to a study done by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Dresden University of Technology, both in Germany.

During a stress test conducted for the study, subjects were faced with difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews, while two supposed behavioral analysts assessed their performance.

Overall, 26 percent of observers who were not directly exposed to any stress whatsoever showed a significant increase in the human body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol.

The effect was particularly strong when the observer and the stressed individual were partners in a relationship (40 percent) but even when observing a complete stranger, ten percent of the observers experienced a stress response.

The study found that when observers watched the events directly through a one-way mirror, 30 percent of them experienced a stress response.However, when the stress test was displayed to observers via video transmission, cortisol levels still increased in 24 percent of them.

“The fact that we could actually measure this [empathetic] stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” says Veronika Engert, one of the study’s authors.

She says the fact that stress can be transmitted through a video stream goes to show “that even television programmes depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers.”

“Stress has enormous contagion potential,” she concluded. And that can be dangerous.

“A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course,” explains Engert. “When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol. However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good. They have a negative impact on the immune system and neurotoxic properties in the long term.”

The results of the study also debunked a common prejudice, according to researchers. They say the men and women they observed actually experienced empathetic stress equally.

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