What Is Emotional Contagion: Can We Actually Get Secondhand Stress?

What is emotional contagion and do we have a physiological response to stress? Find out why we mimic the stress we feel from others around us.

By Donna Sarkar
Nov 1, 2023 1:00 PM
(Credit:Zamrznuti tonovi/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

You know when you see someone yawn, and suddenly, you find yourself yawning seconds later? It's possible that, just like a contagious yawn, stress works similarly. Think about how many times you've felt stressed out when a partner, family member, or even coworker around you was exhibiting symptoms of stress. 

So, is stress contagious? Krystal Lewis, clinical psychologist and board member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, explains if stress can be deemed emotionally contagious and what makes certain people more predisposed to stress.

Our Physiological Response to Stress

While specific stress responses may vary from person to person, our bodies constantly react to the people and environment around us. So, when our bodies notice a real or perceived threat in our surroundings, our physiological stress response is activated, according to Verywell Mind.

What Is Emotional Contagion?

Humans' tendency to mimic and spread their emotions to those around them is known as emotional contagion. When a loved one comes to you with good news, their positive energy and happiness can often feel infectious. Similarly, when the people around you are stressed or exhausted, their negative energy can seem like it's rubbing off on you.

Read More: The Biology of Stress in Your Body

What Is Stress Response and How Does It Affect Us? 

Understanding what science defines as stress is key to breaking down the stress contagion effect. Stress, in and of itself, is explained to be a biopsychological reaction that the body endures when faced with problems occurring around us. 

What Is a Stress Reaction?

According to Harvard Health, the reaction that occurs is called a stress reaction, which is when the body starts releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to prepare your body to face a challenging situation. 

This stress reaction can be activated in response to other people, experiences, and even the environment around us, explains Lewis. "Maybe they feel responsible to help this other person, and then they start to worry about the same things, or it could be that maybe they feel they don't have control over the situation," says Lewis.

She gives the example of a parent dealing with a stressed-out child who is facing hardships in their school environment. Because the parent feels responsible for their child, the stressors of their children inevitably carry on to the parent, making them also feel stressed out.

Read More: Can You Predict a Panic Attack?

What Is Secondhand Stress?

Secondhand stress refers to the emotional or psychological stress that individuals can experience as a result of being around or interacting with someone who is stressed. While it's obvious that we tend to feel rattled when the people we take care of are in distress, is it possible to be stressed out by other adults that we are not caring for? Well, this is where the stress contagion effect really comes into play. 

Is Stress Contagious?

Yes, when one person is stressed, their emotional state and behaviors can affect those around them. In a study examining the physiological implications of the stress contagion effect, researchers created a set of twenty-one videos that involved participants speaking while under minimal stress, high stress, and while recovering from stress. 

These videos were then shown to a second set of sixty-three participants to view how secondhand stress would affect the participants observing the videos. Each participant viewing the videos had their heart rates monitored through an electrocardiogram. In addition, the participants also completed a self-report Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy after the video that categorized the participants into low and high empathy levels based on their scores through a median split. 

Is a Physiological Response to Secondhand Stress Real?

The results showed that participants observing others experiencing or recovering from stress had significant changes in their cardiac activity, indicating a stress response. However, each participant's emotional contagion levels did not correlate to having more or less of a stress response. Overall, the study backed the theory that the stress contagion effect is not only real but also presented physiologically, despite people's specific empathy levels. 

Read More: What Stress Does to the Immune System

Different Types of Stress

Even though we may all experience emotional contagion, some of us are indeed more reactive to different types of stress than others. For instance, individuals can have a predisposition to anxiety or depression, and as a result, their stress responses might be activated quicker than others, says Lewis. Other times, it can also be that an individual person creates this heightened stress response in us, she explains.

Is All Stress Bad?

"Stress doesn't always have to be bad," says Lewis. "In fact, experiencing some level of stress and distress when we're younger is important so individuals can learn how to manage that stress." However, when occasional stress turns into chronic stress, that's when it can really start to be detrimental to one's physical and mental well-being. 

What Is Eustress?

Eustress is a positive stress that can be motivating and lead to improved performance. For example, the stress of a challenging project or a competitive situation can actually drive you to excel and achieve your goals.

What Is Distress?

Distress is negative stress and is the one most people typically think of when they hear the term "stress." It can have harmful effects on physical and mental health and should be managed.

What Is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is a prolonged and ongoing state of stress that persists over an extended period. According to research published in Psychological Science, individuals who faced a significant amount of stress during childhood and were also currently facing stressful situations showed an unhealthy level of stress hormone regulation. Lewis explains that such chronic stress can create negative long-term consequences, especially in children and pre-teens, as they are still developing physically, emotionally, and neurologically. 

Read More: What is Anxiety and How Can Worries Overpower Us?

How to Cope With Secondhand Stress

When the body starts showing the first signs of stress, everything from physical and cognitive health to even our emotions and behaviors can be affected, per the American Psychological Association. This is why it's important to minimize the secondhand stress that we experience.

Identify the Stressor

The first thing you can do if you think you are suffering from secondhand stress is to pinpoint who or what might be causing it and then distance yourself from it. For instance, if you have a partner who works from home and, as a result, carries their work stress in the house with them.

Set Boundaries

Try to set some boundaries that will help them differentiate between their work and home space. 

These boundaries can help minimize the secondhand stress you feel from them bringing their problems home from work. 

Regain Control

Beyond this, it's also important to individually regain control of your physical and mental health, which can involve taking adequate breaks throughout the day, getting physical exercise to manage stress levels, visiting a therapist to manage emotions, and overall, keeping your body healthy through good sleep, food, and elimination of alcohol and stimulants, per Sutter Health.

While stress can seem deadly contagious, "the key is feeling like you have enough resources and bandwidth to deal with the situation or person and even if you don't, then knowing that if you're overwhelmed or experiencing something negative, it'll pass and you can handle it," says Lewis.

Read More: How To Deal With Work Stress — And Actually Recover From Burnout

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.