Stress is bad for us; decades of research have documented that. It contributes to many mental and physical health problems. But – a growing field of research explores another detrimental aspect of stress – it’s contagious.
In their weekly conversation, WHYY’s behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott and psychologist Dan Gottlieb discussed what scientists are learning about this.
MS: Dan – we often say things like – this person is “stressing me out” how is that possible?
DG: In very basic terms, we are hard-wired to be social animals through so-called mirror neurons – they were first discovered in the 1990s. They simulate the actions and emotions of others. It’s designed to help us learn, understand, empathize. It is usually a good thing. But – when somebody is very stressed, these mirror neurons in our brains imitate their stress response.
MS: So – this could be happening at home, at work – anywhere?
– yes, research has found “crossover” stress that travels from co-worker to co-worker, that stress travels from spouse to spouse, and then to children. And a lot of times, we are not even aware that this is happening in our brains.Researchers have also shown that stress travels from mothers to children – they pick up on their mother’s stress levels and have physiological responses to their mom’s stress reaction, such as increased heart rate etc.
MS: What can we do to “protect” ourselves from other people’s stress?
DG: We can learn to be aware of our own stress levels, just ‘checking in’ with ourselves a few times a day. As parents, we have to take care of our own stress levels, because our stress could hurt our children.