Ever felt like other people’s stress is contagious? Perhaps you’ve had a stressed-out colleague who’s left you feeling panicked, even though you’re totally on top of your own work. Or maybe you’ve caught up with a friend who’s life is drama central, and noticed your heart rate rising. If you feel like their less-than-chill vibes were rubbing off on you, you weren’t imagining it. A new study from the University of Calgary has found that not only is stress contagious, but this ‘transmitted’ stress can also change your brain in the same way that real stress does.
The new study, which was carried out in pairs of male and female mice, revealed that surrounding yourself with someone who is stressed out can have a serious impact on your own mental wellbeing. The scientists took one mouse from each pair and exposed it to a mild stressor before returning it to its partner. After their reunion, the researchers studied their brain cells, specifically looking for CRH neurons, which control the brain’s response to stress. Ultimately, they discovered that the networks in the brain of both mice were altered in the same way. This was a result of what the scientists called the ‘alarm pheromone,’ which was released from the stressed mouse and detected by the partner, who in turn felt the same stressful emotions.
“What was remarkable was that CRH neurons from the partners, who were not themselves exposed to an actual stress, showed changes that were identical to those we measured in the stressed mice,” says lead study author Toni-Lee Sterley. Study co-author Jaideep Bains, Ph.D adds that the same effect could quite easily happen with humans. “We readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it,” he says. “There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD. On the flip side, the ability to sense another’s emotional state is a key part of creating and building social bonds.”
Interestingly, the study also found that the effects of stress in the brain are reversed in female mice following a social interaction, but the same wasn’t true for male mice. Kind of like the way us ladies will instantly feel better after a good debrief with the girls!