Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

Is Stress Contagious? Studies Say Yes—And Here’s How to Deal With It

Emotions can pass from one person to another as easily as a cold. Here’s how to stay balanced and free from the negative vibes.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Illustration of two people facing each other against a purple swirly background

Photo illustration by Ivana Cruz

I can detect my husband’s stress in the way he walks; my nine-year-old daughter’s anger in her low, drawn-out moan. Within a matter of minutes, this surface tension has caused my own jaw to clench. These days, emotions fly around our house like a fast-moving game of ping-pong—it’s so easy to absorb someone else’s bad mood and then deflect that negative energy onto the next person. When the pandemic forced us into close quarters, the threat of catching someone else’s stress—be it from family members, roommates, or even social interactions online—seemed ever-present. This spiraling, I was thankful to learn, is not all in my head—it’s actually backed by science: A large body of evidence shows that stress is a form of so-called emotional contagion and can, in fact, spread among members in a group remarkably quickly—and have a lingering effect that lasts for hours, even days.

“We naturally catch other people’s emotions unconsciously, just like we might a cold,” says Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University who hosts The Happiness Lab podcast. “We are much more affected by the people around us than we might think, in terms of behaviors and habits.” Research shows that watching people go through a stressful ordeal—such as giving a presentation and performing mental arithmetic in front of others—can raise the heart rate and cortisol levels in the observers, says Tony Buchanan, Ph.D., codirector of the neuroscience program at Saint Louis University in St. Louis. Buchanan helped developed a research paradigm, the Emphatic Trier Social Stress Test, to illustrate this phenomenon. The ripple effect, he says, is hardwired into our biology for survival. “In animals who live in groups, such as humans, your chances of survival are greater if you pay attention to others’ stress, as a warning sign of danger, and mobilize internal resources to get your muscles working to flee that situation,” he explains.

Today the threat of being eaten by a predator is pretty much nonexistent, but we still pick up on these signals—even in very subtle ways. Jaideep Bains, Ph.D., a professor of physiology and a principal investigator of the Stressynomics lab at the University of Calgary, Canada, has found that stressed mice emit an odor, an “alarm pheromone,” that’s detected by other mice, which could explain the pathway of emotional contagion in us too. “The circuits of the brain that respond to stress are similar in mice and humans,” he says. Interestingly, our coping mechanisms might differ by sex, though—in a study where female mice shared their stress with a partner, their stress levels decreased, but the same was not true of male mice. The takeaway: Calming methods are not universal—what works for you might not comfort others.

In my house, screen time and scrolling Instagram are often an escape from negative vibes, but virtual interactions can also elicit a stress response, finds Stephanie Dimitroff, Ph.D, a clinical neuropsychology researcher at the University of Konstanz, Germany. In a 2017 study, Dimitroff recruited college-age volunteers, hooked them up to EKG monitors, and had them watch a series of videos of people experiencing different levels of stress. “The observers’ heart rate changed based on the stress level of the videos, and it synchronized faster if the person had a high level of affective empathy—or the ability to automatically feel the emotions of those around you,” she says. This might explain why watching the news induces panic among many, and less avoidable screen time, such as sitting on lengthy Zooms with angsty coworkers, can also leave you feeling keyed up.

Surprisingly, Dimitroff is adamant that absorbing others’ stress can be a good thing. Come again? “It’s the foundation for empathy, and without emotional contagion, it would be harder to understand what others are experiencing,” she emphasizes. Still, Dimitroff makes the distinction between acute stress—those temporary bummers such as getting caught in traffic or failing a test—and chronic, long-term stress, which can last for months and have detrimental health effects. Regardless of the type of stress, she says, “There is no magic cure, unfortunately, but there are some techniques that have shown benefits.” Starting with this one: Reframe the situation. “Recognize that stress is not a failing, it’s there for an evolutionary reason,” Dimitroff says. “And if you’re prone to stress contagion, you’re likely to catch all emotions from others—including happiness.”

Here, more research-backed strategies for not being immune to secondhand stress but learning to cope with it, so you can rebound and stop the spread to those in your circle.

Take a Mental Step Back

Brain changes can be detected almost instantly when the body is exposed to stress, and depending on the context, the effects can “last minutes to days if you’re continually exposed,” says Buchanan. When you can’t remove the stressor (hi, kids and partners), “try a cognitive behavioral therapy technique and look at the stress as a challenge to overcome rather than a threat for you personally,” says Buchanan. It’s similar to compassionate detachment—you can be kind, attentive, and respectful but draw the line at becoming emotionally invested in fixing things that are beyond your control.

Hold Space and Breathe

“I think right now we’re dealing with an unprecedented amount of stress,” says Maryam Ajayi, an L.A.–based energy healer and founder of Dive In Well. Her strategy: “When I feel anxious, I’ll ask myself if what I’m feeling is my stress or someone else’s.” That often creates a mental buffer, and from there, she relies on breathwork to calm the nervous system, particularly the box method: Inhale slowly for four counts, hold the breath for four counts, and then exhale for four counts. “Do this for four minutes,” says Ajayi, who is also launching an online breathwork membership this month.

Get Up to Calm Down

Bystander stress can change the brain in the same way as primary stress—it alters corticotropin-releasing hormone neurons, which control the release of cortisol, among other actions, says Bains. To counteract this reaction, consider exercise, which can have positive effects on the brain. Importantly, though, the activity should be enjoyable, says Bains. “Otherwise, it’s forced exercise, and that can exacerbate stress rather than minimize it.” Whether you run, spin, or dance, keep it fun rather than overly focused on metrics like miles or minutes logged.

Practice Good Emotional Hygiene

Calling or texting a friend to vent can feel good in the moment, but it also passes your stress onto the receiver. Instead, Ajayi prefers journaling as a healthy form of release. “I do a couple pages every morning—it doesn’t have to be poetic, just free-flowing streams of consciousness. Let all your emotions come up.” Then close the book and move on for the day. Also helpful: Jot down a few things you’re grateful for, to shift your perspective. “It’s grounding in these stressful times,” says Ajayi.

Boost Your Emotional Immune System

We can’t remain calm in the face of tension if we’re already burned out, says Ajayi. When you tend to your needs first, you’ll be more resilient and less likely to react to others’ stress triggers. Do whatever self-care is soothing for you: Ajayi swears by simple but effective walks outside to clear her head and nightly baths: “I love filling the tub with Epsom salts, essential oils, and flowers. The ritual fills me up with strength and takes away the things that no longer serve me.”

Sit With the Bad Feelings

Sometimes you just have to ride out difficult emotions, says Santos, who recommends a coping technique from psychologist and meditation expert Tara Brach called RAIN: Recognize what is happening; allow the experience to be there; investigate what feelings come up for you; and nurture yourself with positive solutions. (“I ask my friend to send me pictures of her cat,” offers Santos.) “Emotions are like a wave, but you can sit with it, breathe, and watch that wave go away,” she says. Consider the practice a form of meditation that you can do anywhere, anytime. “It’s mindfully and nonjudgmentally letting things be,” says Santos. “That’s good medicine.”

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Vogue

This post originally appeared on Vogue and was published January 21, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

Subscribe to Vogue for the Latest in Fashion, Beauty and Culture.