How to avoid catching stress

It's official: Stress is contagious. So how can you avoid catching the worry bug?

We're sorry to tell you, but new research has shown that stress is contagious. A study done on pairs of mice at the University of Calgary in Canada has revealed that when one mouse was subjected to mild stress and then reunited with its partner, that partner’s brain felt stress in the same way.

Yes, OK so that was done on mice but other studies have been done on real living humans that have found similar results - in 2104 a study published in the (riveting-sounding) journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, saw participants paired with loved ones or strangers of the opposite sex, and divided into two groups. Some went through stressful interviews, while the others watched the stress of their partners unfold. Of those watching loved ones subjected to stress, 40 per cent experienced an increase in cortisol (aka the stress hormone) in their own bodies, and 10 per cent of strangers felt empathy for their stressed-out partners even though they didn’t have a close bond. Mind-blowing isn’t it? Enough to stress you out even!

Of course, stress isn’t actually medically contagious like the flu, but Lysn psychologist Breanna Jayne Sada agrees it definitely has a contagion effect. “As humans we are social beings and we build connection by relating to others,” she says. “Have you ever noticed that when someone yawns you will yawn even if you aren’t tired - we’re wired to reflect people’s expressions and movements and the same goes for emotion. Our impulse to mirror others is our primal way of learning and bonding which is helpful, but when we start adopting others unwanted emotion (like stress), this can be problematic.”

But just like washing your hands can stop the spread of the flu there are some things you can do to avoid "catching" stress at work or at home.

Get mindful on your commute

Whether it’s through breathing exercises (try Breathe2relax, an app originally designed to help with stress management in the military community), yoga or meditation, practising a little mindfulness will allow you to come into work or home with an already positive state of mind, making it harder to fall into the stress trap. You can even try something other than the traditional mindfulness exercises - the app Prune, for example, lets you while away time pruning a virtual bonsai tree. Stress be gone!

Flee from the frenzy

“Once you identify someone or a group of people are in a frenzy of stress, actually pick yourself up and remove yourself,” suggests Breanna. The Canadian study found that when stressed female mice mingled and bonded with other female mice who weren't stressed, the "effects of stress on CRH neurons were cut almost in half." So, the next time you're feeling tense because of a co-worker or loved one, walk away and go grab a coffee (or herbal tea) with someone else instead.

Create a "no stress" zone

“Whether it’s at work or home,” says Breanna, “outline a room or even a piece of furniture where no stress or no stress talk is allowed. Focus on creating a healthy environment to avoid any unhelpful behaviours and put a rule in place that that particular area is for positive thinking and behaviours only.”

Mentally shield yourself

This may sound a little whoo whoo, but it works.  When someone is projecting their stress on to you, visualise an envelope of white light (or any colour you feel gives you power) around your entire body. Think of it as a shield that blocks out negativity or physical discomfort but allows what’s positive to filter in.

Set aside "worry time"

“We can’t ignore stress and we have to deal with it at some point without letting it consume us,” says Breanna, “but the good news there is a great app for just that purpose! ReachOut has an app called Worry Time that helps you put aside those repetitive thoughts that might be interrupting you so you can address them later and get on with your day.” This means once a day you allow yourself some time to worry or to sort through the thoughts that no longer matter, or that you’ve caught from other people, and get on with being more productive and happy.


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