Stress can be “contagious”

Have you ever watched someone else yawn and tried to resist the impulse to copy them? Not easy, right?

How about when you see an angry face? Can you take a moment to notice how your own face, heart rate and muscle tension respond?

When we interact with each other, we show a huge array of feelings without using words. Even if we hardly notice it, we are constantly trying to “read” other people’s feelings. And quite often, we form an understanding of what others are feeling based on tiny facial signals, tone of voice, posture and gaze. 

We humans have evolved as tribes. Over the ages, our “social brain” has evolved to help us respond to each other within milliseconds. Often, we respond to each other’s facial expressions or tone of voice without even noticing it. This ability helps us live, work and play together successfully.

Quite often, we even “mirror” each other’s feelings. Sometimes, we can “infect” each other with joy. In difficult or embarrassing situations, we can soothe each other with a quick glance and a smile that says “everything’s ok”. 

Now more than ever, these little signs of mutual understanding and kindness can make a big difference. 

Can you think of a situation where you and a group of people “caught” a certain feeling from each other? For example, while watching a football game? Just like joy is contagious, so are stress and anxiety. Thanks to this ability, we are able to live and work together in very large groups. But when anxiety and stress dominate for too long, this connectedness can become a burden. 

Groups have a collective stress and recovery curve! When we are all dealing with more stress and anxiety than we are used to, it can easily have a negative impact on how we relate to each other. When our nervous systems or on edge, a minor argument can blow up into a shouting match or fight. In the worst case, we end up hurting each other. With words, or physically.

What to do?

There are many ways to “put the brakes on” in our interactions with each other. Surely you have lots of tried and tested strategies of your own! Here are a few more that we’ve found helpful: 

Take a time out! If possible, go into separate rooms rather than pushing your stress curve even higher. If you’re in a conflict with your child, setting a time for this can be helpful, for example 5 minutes. 

Control your own response by taking care of yourself first, for example by drinking a whole glass of water to calm your pulse, breathing and heartrate. Or try to get your anger under control by pressing against a wall. This helps your body process stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, which our body produces when we feel threatened.

Offer help without long explanations! When our stress curves spike into hyperarousal, our thinking and logic take the back seat. For example, with children: “Wow! That really makes you mad, doesn’t it! Let’s see how strong and angry you are!”And with adults: “I’m sorry this is really upsetting you. Let me get you something to drink.” (Don’t use alcoholic beverages for this because it can easily worsen the situation.)

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Stress can be “contagious”

We humans have evolved as tribes. Over the ages, our “social brain” has evolved to help us respond to each other within milliseconds.