It’s news that may not be surprising to those with flustered colleagues: stress really is contagious.
New research has revealed that merely seeing another person in a difficult situation is enough to trigger stress responses in our own bodies.
The effects are not just felt when a partner is stressed, but also when a TV character or stranger is seen in a worrying environment.
The researchers said stress is a major health threat in today’s society, causing a range of psychological problems such as burnout, depression and anxiety.
And even people who lead relatively relaxed lives constantly come into contact with stressed individuals, either at work or even in TV shows.
During the stress test, subjects had to struggle with difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews, while two supposed behavioural analysts assessed their performance.
Only five percent of the directly stressed test subjects managed to remain calm; the others displayed a physiologically significant increase in their cortisol levels
In total, 26 per cent of observers who were not directly exposed to any stress whatsoever also showed a significant increase in cortisol.
The effect was particularly strong when the observer and stressed individual were partners in a couple relationship (40 per cent). .
However, even when watching a complete stranger, the stress was transmitted to ten per cent of the observers.
When the observers watched the events directly through a one-way mirror, 30 per cent of them experienced a stress response.
However, even presenting the stress test only virtually via video transmission was sufficient to significantly increase the cortisol levels of 24 per cent of the observers.
Dr Veronika Engert, one of the study’s authors from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, said: ‘This means that even television programmes depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers.’
‘The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing.
‘There must be a transmission mechanism via which the target’s state can elicit a similar state in the observer down to the level of a hormonal stress response.’
The researchers said stress becomes a problem when it is chronic.
Dr Engert said: ‘A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course. When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol.
‘However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good. They have a negative impact on the immune system and neurotoxic properties in the long term.’
The findings are published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.