Stress – is it contagious?

stress contagious

By Emma Fogt, MBA, MS, RD, LDN, FAND

Recent studies suggest just like catching a cold, stress is contagious. It can travel in social circles, from one person to another, like a germ that floats from one coworker to the next. Personal stress not only affects ourselves, but can also infect our friends, our families, and even strangers nearby.

Here’s an example from my own life: I remember being on a BOLT bus getting ready to depart to NYC. Suddenly the driver went A-wall on a poor passenger who placed his bag on an empty seat. The driver was flailing his arms, swearing at the passenger and screaming at the top of his lungs for the passenger to get off the bus. The inadvertent result? I was so stressed out that I felt sick to my stomach! As the passenger got off the bus – so did I. I had absorbed that secondhand stress of the driver and passenger, and it had infected my body and mind.

Now let’s take a look at a research-backed example: Researchers from NYU and the Emotion Health and Physiology Laboratory at the University of San Francisco have studied how mother’s stress levels affect their babies. In their study, mother’s stress levels were measured with an EKG to see if their babies absorbed their personal stress signals. As it turned out, the baby’s sympathetic responses did match their mother’s stress levels. If mothers were more stressed, their own heart rates went up, as did the rates of their baby’s.

Stress can be hard to avoid, which is why it’s important to be mindful of both how you let it affect you and of others around you. On the bright side, there are lots of strategies and mechanisms you can utilize to minimize its impact in your life. By controlling your stress levels, you can boost your own health and energy, and simultaneously reduce the secondhand stress you may transfer onto others.

Here are three ways to handle the contagious stress that might be thrown your way:

  1. Avoid stressful situations. Yes, this is obviously easier said than done, but if you know a certain situation or environment places a repeated negative tension on your life, seek alternatives. Don’t needlessly walk into a pressurized situation if there are better options out there.
  2. Determine how you will react to stress. Instead of letting stress stick to you like Velcro, just imagine, you are made of Teflon. The stress just slides off. You don’t absorb it, but instead block it from your mind so that you can fill yourself with positive energy. What you don’t let get to you can’t control your life (or health!).
  3. Use coping mechanisms like meditation and deep breathing to refocus your energy and move away from the tension that stress can bring. When you feel your palms start to get sweaty, your head start to throb, or perhaps your anxiety levels start to skyrocket, stop for a moment and evaluate from where these symptoms are coming. Take a deep breath. Take two deep breaths. If you can, take 3 minutes of deep breaths, and feel how this simple act can center and refuel you. Then, remind yourself, you can take charge of the situation, and that anything can be accomplished when you slow down and take one step at a time.

Untitled-1Emma Fogt, MBA, MS, RD, LDN, FAND is a Wellness Expert, Speaker & Author. She is seen as a Nutrition Expert in the local media and enjoys cooking up a storm with corporations via Culinary Team Building. Her programs offer leaders and emerging leaders talks, webinars and workshops on wellness, wellbeing and work-life fit. Emma is an active member of Nutrition Entrepreneurs (Chair 2012-13), The National Speaker’s Association and a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Emma’s first book published by ewomenwellness is entitled: Having YOUR All, How Self-Care Leads to an Energized, Empowered and Effective Life!


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