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Is Stress Contagious?

Do you know of someone who stresses you out? Someone who sucks the air out of the room? Studies have shown that stress and emotions are contagious. If that isn’t bad enough, a group of Canadian scientists may have discovered how this emotional transaction changes the brain.


This research team from the University of Calgary studied how stress affects the brains of male and female mice. They gender-paired the mice, removed one mouse from each pair, and then stressed it out before returning it to its partner. The study focused in on the neurons — the corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) that control the brain’s response to stress, and found that the brain of the stressed mouse and its non-stressed partner were similarly changed.


Using optogenetic technology (a technique using light-sensitive proteins that allows researchers to control how nerve cells communicate) the team experimented with turning the stressed mice’s CRH neurons ‘on’ and ‘off’. When they were off, CRH neurons were unreactive and in their silent state they stopped from creating stress-induced changes.


Researchers also turned off the neurons in the non-stressed partner that prevented the stress from transferring. But when the neurons were turned on, the brain of the mouse that was stressed changed and that triggered a change in the non-stressed partner, even though there was no stress. Activating CRH neurons is like sounding an alarm that releases pheromones that emit a signal to another mouse. That mouse can then alert others.


While researchers don’t know what the long-lasting effects of stress-induced changes are, they noticed a difference in the immediate residual effects between genders. Female mice had the effects of stress on CRH neurons cut in half once they returned with unstressed partners, unlike the male mice.


The study suggests that the parts of the brain that regulate the social networks have the ability to create buffers for the adverse effects of stress.


This type of communication may be communicated between humans. “We readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it. There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD. On the flip side, the ability to sense another’s emotional state is a key part of creating and building social bonds,” said Jaideep Bains, professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and member at the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute.


The study  is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.


Stress and emotions can be transmitted from one person to many. Second-hand stress is common in the workplace, among families, checking social media, even driving through traffic can easily pass stress around.


There is a way to protect yourself from second-hand stress. Like the mice in the study, you can behave in a way that feels like you’ve turned ‘off’ the stress neurons. You can’t control the world around you but you can control your response to it. The most empowering way is to create a positive mindset.


Don’t be afraid of stress or the people who create it. Instead, respond with compassion and change your perception about stress into an opportunity to learn. Rather then responding with defensiveness or anger, reach for a response that sees the other person as someone struggling within themselves to control their flight-fight response. Rising above second-hand stress takes high emotional intelligence but everyone is capable of applying it with practice.


One way to support a positive mindset is to practice meditation. It may be easier to control your response to stress when you are in a more balanced, stress-free place yourself. I like the Muse device for guided meditation and neurofeedback. I encourage you to find what works for you. Spending time outside, exercising, and doing something you love can also contribute to a more positive mindset.


The Canadian study reminds us that our day-to-day interactions with others and stress are intricately linked. If we are more aware of the consequences of these interactions have on our wellbeing we are more likely to respond with care for others and ourselves.