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Stress Is Contagious — How To Know If You're Catching It, From A Neuroscientist

Jamie Schneider
Author:
January 12, 2023
Jamie Schneider
mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor
By Jamie Schneider
mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Pensive Female Portrait
Image by Nadine Brandt
January 12, 2023
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Picture this: You're helping a friend deal with a particularly unnerving situation, and you leave the experience feeling a bit unsettled yourself. Or perhaps you catch your parent or spouse in a sour mood—and you suddenly feel yourself becoming more glum. Maybe you even snap at a loved one later in the day, for seemingly no rhyme or reason. 

You weren't feeling particularly stressed beforehand, which raises the question: Is stress actually…contagious? What is it about stress that spreads faster than the common cold? Here, neuroscientist Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Source, explains everything you need to know. 

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Is stress contagious?

According to Swart, the answer is a resounding: absolutely. "The stress hormone, cortisol, actually leaks out of our skin through our sweat1, and particles of cortisol hang around in the atmosphere around us," she explains on the mindbodygreen podcast. She notes it's a similar process to other hormones, like estrogen and progesterone—that's why many people believe women who exist in close quarters (i.e., live or work together), may wind up synchronizing their menstrual cycles. "That's how much our hormones affect each other," Swart adds. 

And everyone has varying levels of cortisol, regardless of gender. "If somebody is stressed—particularly if they're repressing it so their cortisol levels are high and it's not being expressed by speaking or exercising—then that literally drifts into the atmosphere and goes through your skin into your blood and artificially raises your cortisol levels," Swart says.

In other words: Secondhand stress2 is very much real. It's an unfortunate little factoid, but knowledge is power, is it not? 

What to do about it. 

First things first: Acknowledge your own stress. As Swart mentions, more cortisol can leak from your skin if you're repressing those uncomfortable emotions. So, if you can talk to a professional, friend, or loved one about your stress levels, we encourage you to do so. After all, repressing your emotions can harm your physical health: Self-silencing is even associated with adverse health outcomes and mortality3, according to research. 

You can also encourage folks you spend the most time with to open up about their stress if they feel comfortable doing so. That way, you'll keep cortisol from leaking out of their skin and into yours and, more importantly, connect with a loved one in need. 

From there, find whatever stress-busting methods work best for you, whether it's journaling, exercising, breathwork (Swart is a fan of an early morning breathing ritual), or even supplements. Yes, certain formulas can help bring your body's cortisol back to baseline and relieve stress before it builds up into a problem. Find our favorite options here, all backed by science. 

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The takeaway. 

Stress can already feel like such a burden, and it's especially frustrating when anxious feelings seemingly pop up out of nowhere. In some situations, it's not you—it's who you spend your time with. That's not to say you should blame others for your stress levels, but perhaps try to make stress-managing techniques more of a team effort. Chances are, everyone around you will feel your relief.

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Jamie Schneider
Jamie Schneider
mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor

Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.