New Study: Anxiety Spreads like a Virus

New Study: Anxiety Spreads like a Virus

By Yehudit Garmaise

Turns out, it is not just your imagination. Stress is contagious.

Like branches and leaves that sway together when the wind howls, the emotions of people who are physically near each other tend to mimic each other.

Whether in homes, offices, or other public places, people’s stress hormones spike after observing at least one other person around them exhibiting signs of stress, according to neuroscientist Tony W. Buchanan, a professor at St. Louis University. In 2010, Buchanan measured the responses of people who were simply near others and were behaving as if they were emotionally strained.

For instance, just as babies start to cry when their parents express emotional distress, parents also can get quite agitated when their children are not at peace.

Similarly, one or two people in an office or a group who tend to fly off the handle can keep other employees’ hearts racing and feeling on edge.

In his study, Buchanan measured the observing participants’ cortisol levels, which are hormones that our bodies create in response to stress: both before and after the observers were aware that someone around them was stressed, the Washington Post reported.

Even though the study’s participants had no reason to feel alarmed personally, their cortisol levels skyrocketed, and they started to panic as they watched someone else in distress.

British researchers are explaining how stress is contagious by showing that anxiety spreads among animals when they emit an aromatic pheromone that tells others in their community that danger is near. 

When mice smell the danger pheromone in the air, their behavior begins to replicate the actions of the mouse that experienced the danger, found Jaideep Bains, a neuroscientist at the University of Calgary. 

A mouse, for instance, that runs from a predator out in the field will head back to its nest to warn the other mice that danger is near, explained Bains, who studies the imprint of stress on the brain.

While a vocal sound, such as a squeak, a squawk, or a bark could attract the attention of predators, silent chemical signals are only detected by those who are very close to you, explained Bains, who called the danger pheromone “great way to inform others that there’s a danger.”

As soon as the mice back in the nest smell the stress hormone emitted by the mouse that detected danger, their neuronal connections change so that they exactly mimic those of the mouse that first experienced the stressor. 

So the brain activity of the mouse that detected the stress and the truly stressed mouse both exhibited the same levels of panic.

“This has implications for humans, too. Like mice, we feel others’ anxiety.”

We think of ourselves as individuals who have our own experiences and feelings, pointed out Bains.

“We don’t think very much about how the experiences of others and what they are going through at the moment might also shape and affect us,” Bains said.

However, by being aware of this phenomenon, we can choose not to internalize others’ stress levels since it is rarely helpful or beneficial. We can choose to stay calm, cool, and collected, as we are very rarely, thank G-d, actually in danger.

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