Why Stress is Contagious (kinda like pink eye!)

We all know that person: The Chicken Little for whom the sky falls daily. Here’s help for putting the brakes on secondhand stress spirals before said chicken drives you nuts, too.

By Melissa Milrad Goldstein
stressed lady


5 ways to avoid catching other people's stress

Just like a cold, a wildfire, or pink eye, secondhand stress spreads without any physical contact. Studies have shown that merely seeing someone acting stressed, even if you don’t know them personally, can cause cortisol levels to spike. Why? Because our brains, by design, are hardwired to empathize. Our emotions spread via a wireless network of mirror neurons. So, when you see someone acting a certain way, you’re apt to mirror that behavior. Ever notice how seeing someone yawn causes you to follow suit? We rest our case. Similarly, studies have shown that when someone in your visual field is demonstratively distressed or anxious, there’s a likelihood that you’ll mimic those emotions, too.

Unfortunately, the negativity you catch from others can impact your mental state and livelihood, so while feeling someone else’s pain may seem empathetic and compassionate, it’s actually counterproductive. Especially when it comes to those high-stress personalities whose histrionics can go from zero to a hundred in a matter of seconds. “These people are highly sensitive and cannot regulate their emotions,” explains Jennifer R. Saltiel, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. “To them, everything feels like an emergency and the end of the world, and they expect others to come running with the fire extinguisher no matter what the issue.”

But even the mildly stressed and anxious can be dangerous. Explains psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, “Think of that perpetually grumpy friend or the unpredictable colleague who can explode at any moment. You probably feel stressed just thinking about them.” Their stress can be contagious because empathy is at play, says Alpert. And while empathy can soothe us (think of what a mood booster the person who exudes good energy when everything feels like it’s falling apart can be), it can also be detrimental to our mental health. 

“Human beings are designed for connection and have an easier time de-stressing if they have someone else to help them. But you don’t have to bend over backward,” says Saltiel, who likens it to Ferberizing a baby; a little assist is fine, but then you need to leave the room and grab yourself some earplugs and wine.

Keep Calm and Carry On, the most maligned meme of the last decade, was actually a motivational poster developed by the British government in 1939 during the early days of the blitz. So, when a friend, family member, or coworker is lobbing emotional artillery your way, you may want to keep this ditty in mind — especially during the holidays. Here’s a game plan to stop the spread of stress, safeguard your happiness and still be there for those you love even if they’re having a rough time. 

Establish boundaries

Resist being a people pleaser and feel free to say “no” to keep your emotional well-being in check.

Say less

Neutralize the adverse effects of the stressor by returning their tirade with a smile or a nod of understanding. This short-circuits their power.

Don’t add fuel to the fire

Adding your personal negativity to the situation only reinforces a person’s anxiety and leads to more stress.

Validate, don’t enable

 A brief validation of one’s feelings, even when you don’t agree with them, may be enough to talk the person down from a freak-out. Saying, “it sounds like you’re really upset, I get it,” may be enough to diffuse the situation, but it needs to end there, explains Saltiel.

Listen to your body

The more you pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the less power the stress will have over you. “Lower the volume,” says Saltiel. “Press your feet down into the floor, take some deep breaths, and take a pause to remind yourself of your present space.”


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