Many people perceive stress as a subjective experience that takes place within the privacy of their own internal landscape, but research indicates that stress can actually be transmitted from one person to another in a phenomenon called “empathetic stress.”
In 2011, a team of psychologists at Saint Louis University (SLU) found that students who watched others engaging in public speaking exhibited a “fight-or-flight” response, even though they were not personally affected by the stressful circumstance.
Tony Buchanan, Principal Investigator of SLU’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Stress Lab and co-author of the study, tells BTR that in addition to measuring the physiology of the person delivering the speech, his team also collected saliva samples from the undergraduate research assistants who observed the speaker. These samples were taken both before and after speeches were delivered.
Astonishingly, some of these perfectly healthy students exhibited increased levels of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone essential to the “fight-or-flight” response.
These findings indicate that in some cases, emotions may resonate from one individual to another, actually influencing the recipient’s physical state of being.
When the brain perceives a threatening situation, it triggers a cascade of neurochemical reactions that release stress hormones into the bloodstream. The sudden increase in cortisol and adrenaline activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for exciting the body: heart rate increases, muscles tense and begin to tremor, breathing quickens, pupils dilate. In short, the body prepares either to fight the threat or to flee from it.
All processes that are not essential to a person’s immediate survival–such as salivation, digestion, and sexual arousal–slow down or pause entirely, in order to prioritize the expense of energy.
Once the perceived threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, relieving the body of the tension incited by its first response: heart rate and breathing slow, pupils contract, digestion resumes.
These two facets of the nervous system must each serve to balance the actions of the other. Unfortunately for many among us, the body does not have time to recover fully from each individual stressor encountered throughout the day, and the impacts of the excitatory response far outweigh the pacifying efforts of the parasympathetic.
“The stress response is brilliant for getting you through a crisis,” Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, told Nautilus. Most often, however, we are not involved in the kind of life-or-death crisis that warrants such a fight-or-flight response.
“If you’re sitting there,” Sapolsky continued, “pulsating with frustration in a traffic jam, your body is doing the same thing as if you were running away from a lion. But in those cases, you don’t need to.”
The greatest factors that contribute to an individual’s stress are seldom isolated to a single incident. Most people won’t recover from a break up within the hour or forget about their financial woes by lunchtime. These pressures can take weeks, months, or even years to run their course, all the while inciting action from the biological stress-coping mechanisms that humans evolved for survival situations.
Over the course of the long term, untreated chronic stress can have incredibly damaging effects on health. Heightened blood pressure can lead to chronic hypertension, increasing the risk of stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, and heart attack. Stress destroys insulin-producing cells and suppresses the immune system, rendering the body more susceptible to adult-onset diabetes and serious disease. It can even inhibit growth and fertility.
So, in a stress-ridden society where our friends and colleagues can unknowingly act as hyper-charged conduits for negative tension, how do we navigate our surroundings and emerge unscathed?
Specialists recommend learning to identify personal triggers, such as working under deadlines or interacting with specific individuals. Time management, exercise, and maintaining a balanced diet can all soothe the effects of stress-related pressure. It should also come as no surprise that practicing relaxation through yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises can serve to reestablish balance in the body and mind.
Looking ahead in stress research, Buchanan and his colleagues will seek to better understand the relationship between the body’s physiological nervous responses and overt pro-social behavior, such as acts of altruism. He explains that their research will follow a long line of studies in social psychology that suggest that when people feel empathetic towards someone else, they are more predisposed to help that person.
“This world of stress and emotion has focused on the negative for so long,” he says. “We’re trying to see if there’s anything positive that can be gained from the stress response in either physiology or behavior.”