Researchers have discovered brain cells change following close contact with a stressed individual. Simply put, stress is contagious.
Stress can be brought on by big things like existential crises. More commonly, stress comes from trivial, every-day things like walking into a meeting that’s already started.
Living in a world dominated by social media, we are constantly forced to compare our lives to those of others. Life is, by nature, unstable and uncertain, which can make stress inevitable. Therefore, it is unsurprising that we find ourselves in the midst of an anxiety epidemic.
Overall, one in four people experience some form of an anxiety disorder and 8% of people suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder. Stress and causes of stress come in many forms from phobias to generalized anxiety disorder to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In many cases, causes of stress can be chronic and debilitating if left without effective treatment.One in four people experience some form of an anxiety disorder and 8% of people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder #DontpanicClick To Tweet
We All Know What Stress Feels Like, But What Exactly is it?
This is further complicated for humans, as we have the ability to anticipate that something unfavorable is going to happen.
Stress is a response that is designed to help us respond and cope with danger. When we detect stressful situations, a small region of the base of the brain called the hypothalamus is stimulated.
This leads to the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Also known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormones, these chemicals facilitate response to danger.
As a reaction, fat cells and the liver release glucose into the bloodstream. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate also increase in order to deliver energy as fast as they can.
Think about it, when humans lived in the wild, getting glucose to our legs in two seconds instead of three could be the difference between death or escape.
Anxiety is conductive; a problem shared can be a problem gained.
As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. However, scientific research shows that a problem shared could mean a problem gained.
Stress is conductive, we have all felt its effects. Someone agitated at the desk opposite you is trying to meet a deadline. You watch them downing cups of coffee, racing against the clock, disheveled and hot under the collar.
Whether you feel empathy towards them or not, their aggressive typing and distracting foot-tapping are bound to make you wound up too.
Max Planck from the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences carried out a study that revealed that being around a stressed person will make you stressed in a physically quantifiable way.
The research was carried out by measuring emphatic stress in the form of significant hormone release.
This is unsurprising, often if we see someone we care about is stressed, we will too begin to worry. However, what was perhaps the most interesting revelation of the study was that it doesn’t make a difference if it’s a loved one or a stranger who is experiencing stress.
Stress can be contracted just as easily from sharing the same carriage on the subway as the common cold can be contracted from the handrail.
The ripple effect of fear, isolation, and living in a stressed-out society could lead to a public health crisis.
Stress and Causes of Stress can Seriously Damage Your Health
Stress goes far beyond just feeling stressed, but has knock-on effects on all aspects of physical and mental health and wellbeing. Heightened levels of cortisol can compromise your immune system. Cortisol blocks T-lymphocyte cells which are essential to immunity. By preventing T-cells from recognizing signals of disease. This means that excess cortisol renders individuals suffering from chronic stress vulnerable to infection.
Anyone who has had to cram for an exam the night before will know how stress inducing this can be. An all-nighter is supplemented by caffeine the next day, and often followed by drinks and partying to celebrate getting through it.
Ironically, our reaction to being stressed, in many cases, sleep deprivation, caffeine, and alcohol, in reality, all serve to reinforce the negative effects of stress responses.
Our highly evolved HPA axis, which manufactures and releases cortisol, is extremely sensitive to factors such as circadian rhythm and stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol.
This lethal combination accumulates in a spike in cortisol levels. In fact, sleep deprivation alone can elevate cortisol levels by 45 percent.
Long-term cortisol exposure can decrease thyroid function, lower bone density, and increase abdominal weight gain, thus putting our cardiovascular health at risk.
Unfortunately for last minute studiers, it can also lead to cognitive impairment interfering with our ability to learn and memorize information. If you’re thinking of cramming a semester’s worth of learning into one night, don’t bother, just go to sleep.
Second-hand Stress is just as Powerful as First-hand Stress
A study carried out by a team at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in the Cumming School of Medicine has proven that stress transmitted from others has just as powerful an effect on the brain as first-hand stress.
The researchers studied the effects of stress on pairs of male and female mice. One mouse was removed from each pair and placed in a mildly stressful situation.
Once it was returned to its partner the responses of specific brain cells in each mouse were examined. This revealed that the neurons that control the brains response to stress in the mouse exposed to the stressful situation and the other mouse were altered in the same way.
The researchers discovered that specific neurons cause the release of “an alarm pheromone” from the stressed mouse. This chemical signal alerts the partner mouse, who in turn can alert the other mice in the group.
This not only makes us reconsider the way stressful experiences can change us but also that traits we think of as uniquely human are evolutionary conserved biological traits.
Another interesting insight gained from the study showed that the effects of stress can be cut down by 50% in females by interacting socially.
The researchers noticed that the residual effects of stress on neurons were cut down by almost 50% following time spent with unstressed partners. For the male mice, however, this was not the case.
Why do We Crave Adrenaline?
If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, then I don’t need to tell you that studies have shown that even just watching a TV programme depicting others suffering can transmit stress to viewers. The intensity and intrigue leave you wanting more.
So why were ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ such big hits? Why do we choose to visit haunted houses on Halloween? Why are skydiving and bungee jumping activities that humans voluntarily do? In reality, evolution has led us to actually enjoy fear and being in a state of heightened stress.
We can enjoy the rush once our ‘thinking’ brain or the hippocampus has perceived the situation as safe, which sends a message to the amygdala which processes our emotional reaction. Once we know that there is no real danger, after processing the context, we can enjoy the rush.
But why do we crave adrenaline when we could go cuddle babies? Firstly, when you’re terrified for your life, you are distracted. When you are about to jump out of an airplane, you are constantly on high alert, fully immersed in the here and now. In this state, you cannot be preoccupied with everyday worries.
Secondly, when adrenaline seekers overcome the rush of fear by being able to enjoy it, it gives them a surge of confidence in their abilities after. Most importantly, some of the main chemicals released when we are in a state of anxiety are also involved in other positive emotional states, such as excitement and happiness.
So, emotions are not the only thing that determines how we feel, how we react to these feelings is just as powerful. We often find ourselves stressed for no reason. This makes us stress about being stressed. So, next time you contract second-hand stress, cut the chain.
Take a deep breath, decompress and let it go. Breathing deeply engages the vagus nerve at the base of the brain and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calm us down.
Other ways of de-stressing are as simple as moving your body, or the opposite, being still in mindfulness meditation. Or, why not combine the two and do some yoga? If not for yourself, do it for the sake of those around you.
Something to Smile About- Happiness is Contagious too!
The most powerful way to counteract this anxiety epidemic is smiling. Smiling, even if it’s forced, reduces the levels of stress enhancing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline while increasing mood-enhancing hormones such as endorphins.
A simple smile also has the power to reduce your overall blood pressure. Along with helping your health, smiling make others perceive you as more courteous, likable and competent to others, which will make it easier to glide through life.
Just one single smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate, without rotting your pearly whites.
Luckily, happiness is equally as contagious as stress. A 2014 study showed that if you suddenly become happy, like having a new romance or, even better, a new puppy in your life, a close friend living within a mile of you has a 25% chance of becoming happier too.
It would seem that who you surround yourself with is just as important as the bumper stickers claim.
Smiling has been proven to make you healthier. What is even more interesting is that Grant Study data showed that good mental health slowed the deterioration of physical health.
Along with research by Ichiro Kawachi, a Harvard researcher, found a correlation between happiness and good health in individuals and communities.
Happiness is a collective phenomenon that spreads from one person to another. The ripple effect of a rosy outlook is just as important as eating your vegetables.
Next time someone rudely bumps into you, react with a huge beaming smile. They will probably be left confused but you’ll be one step closer to optimal health.
The realist in me often asks, why wouldn’t we be stressed? we are basically monkeys playing dress-up on a spinning ball of rock that’s racing through a vacuum at 66,700 miles per hour, living at the will of a giant ball of fire, that’s one of 100 trillion stars.
We’re situated in one galaxy of billions of galaxies which make up one universe, which could be one in an infinite amount of other universes.
But, maybe that’s something to smile about in itself.