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Mental Health

Stress is Contagious — Here’s How to Protect Yourself

Times are stressful right now. If you’re stuck indoors with others, you may start to feel like you’re picking up on each others’ emotions, too. The emotional states of those around us can affect our own, and science shows that it’s not all in our heads. Studies have concluded that stress might actually be contagious. The good news is that even at a time like this, it’s possible to break the cycle.

In a recent study published in Social Neuroscience, a group of college students participated in the Trier Social Stress Test, where some of them (speakers) were required to stand up in front of a small group of people (observers) and give a speech. The speakers were then asked to do a difficult math problem in their heads as the observers continued to watch.

The experiment is clearly designed to induce stress, and it succeeds. The results showed that cortisol levels were raised not only in the speakers, but also in the on-looking observers. The researchers say this is all because of a phenomenon called empathic resonance. 

“Some social cohesion is required in animals such as ourselves that live in groups,” the study’s lead researcher, Tom Buchanan, told Healthline. “If one member of the group detects a threat, it’s advantageous if the others pick up on it as well.”

In other words, empathy helps us survive. But with everyone freaking out about the coronavirus (COVID-19) right now, the stress you might be absorbing from others may feel like it’s doing just the opposite. If it’s all taking a toll on you, try to set aside time and personal space as much as you can. Research has shown that time alone can help mitigate stress caused by others. Additionally, call up a friend or family member who lifts your spirits. Just like stress is contagious, having positive interactions can make you feel happier and more optimistic!

If you’re the one in your circle who’s stressing out to no end, it may be time to make an effort to get more grounded. While we don’t quite know what the future holds, we do know that excessive stress is bad for our health. It takes a toll on our sleep, heart health, mental health, and more. Yes, the state of the world is worrisome, but keeping ourselves wound up is not going to do us — or anyone around us — any real good.

We spoke to Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Anxiety Toolkit ($12.17, Amazon) for tips to manage stress during this trying time. Her best advice? “Set some limits on coronavirus news consumption,” she said. If you’re finding yourself obsessing over the state of the virus and watching the news all day long, try to give your mind a break. 

Dr. Boyes made another interesting point: With our busy schedules, how often do we really get to slow down and learn how to just deal with what comes up in our minds? She says that now is the perfect time to practice our coping skills for stress and anxiety. “We often don’t prioritize learning stress reduction skills, but a crisis can provide the motivation for that. Use this as an opportunity to learn anxiety management skills that you will have with you for life.” 

For more tips from Dr. Boyes, click here! Otherwise, if you’re ready to start managing your stress levels right away, check out this beginners guide to meditation or this soothing yoga routine

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