Is stress actually contagious? How to decrease stress levels?

Get ready for cold and flu season—it’s just around the corner. During this time, one family member can sneeze on a computer keyboard, and suddenly everyone falls sick.

However, there’s something equally contagious that often goes unnoticed: stress. Like a nasty cold or flu, stress can spread quickly.

Is stress actually contagious?

Research indicates that merely observing someone under a lot of stress can increase our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. A recent Swedish study even discovered that you can transmit stress to your dog.

Scientists suggest that our evolutionary history may explain why stress is “catching.” As social beings, humans are wired to detect threats in the environment and quickly communicate them to others. This ability has helped our species survive over the years.

Tired and stressed out woman working late in an office, leaning at her desk and holding head in hands; anxious woman working overtime

If you bring home the remnants of a stressful day at the office, the people in your close circle might feel it too, according to Alison M. Gilbert, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor. While more than half of Americans experience daily stress, a 2017 survey of 3,021 women by Northwell Health found that 43% reported a “great deal of stress” in balancing work and family life. Additionally, 41% reported high-stress levels regarding their health and well-being, with many anticipating increased stress in the next five years.

When adults are stressed, it affects their kids too. In a well-known study, researcher Ellen Galinsky spoke with over 1,000 children aged 8 to 18 about their parents’ working lives. Surprisingly, when asked about their one wish to change the impact of their parents’ work on their lives, most kids didn’t wish for more time together. Instead, their most fervent wish was for their parents to be less stressed and less tired. Galinsky was further surprised by the extent to which these children worried about their parents, with one-third reporting frequent worries and two-thirds expressing occasional concerns.

How to decrease stress levels?

Take a deep breath

Take a moment to remember to breathe. If you’re feeling stressed, one of the quickest ways to find relief is by taking deep breaths. Studies have shown that deep breathing works instantly on our nervous system. When you’re stressed, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing becomes rapid. Deep breathing signals your brain to slow down and relax.

To return to a calmer state, try 4-7-8 breathing, a simple technique suitable for the whole family. Whether sitting or standing, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale deeply from your belly, silently counting to four as you breathe in slowly. Hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale completely as you silently count to eight. Repeat this exercise three to seven times until you feel calm and centred.

Young girl expressing her mind on a therapy session, psychotherapy concept

Don’t ignore the symptom

It’s essential not to ignore the symptoms of stress. Stress is so widespread in our lives that we might not even realize its impact. According to Gilbert, our bodies provide clear signals when we’re experiencing stress, such as physical pain (muscle tension or stomach trouble) or increased susceptibility to common colds due to the immune system’s response to stress.

Watch out for sudden changes in behaviour, like frequent temper loss, increased impatience, lack of energy, or difficulty sleeping—these are signs of potential stress overload. Consider keeping a stress journal, as a 2018 Penn State study found that journaling not only helps relieve tension but also clarifies thoughts and feelings.

Be mindful of how you handle stress

Make sure the activities you use to reduce stress truly recharge and rejuvenate you, whether it’s taking a hot bath, practising meditation, or engaging in a hobby like gardening. According to Gilbert, it can sometimes be challenging for people to recognize what genuinely helps alleviate stress. For example, if you’re binge-watching something on Netflix but find your mind wandering and worrying, it may not be effectively distracting you from your concerns.

A reliable way to decrease tension is to seek support from others. Just as stress can be contagious, studies have shown that social support can reduce stress in humans. If you’re feeling on edge, consider reaching out to a friend or relative or going for a quick “walk and talk” with a buddy.

Pay attention to the positive aspects of your life

In his book “Hardwiring Happiness,” psychologist Rick Hanson emphasizes that savouring positive experiences strengthens neural pathways in the brain. Hanson explains that your mind is continuously shaping your brain through experience-dependent neuroplasticity. If you consistently focus on self-criticism, worries, and complaints about others, your brain may become more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

On the flip side, if you regularly direct your attention to good events, pleasant feelings, achievements, physical pleasures, and positive intentions, your brain will develop resilience and strength over time, fostering a realistically optimistic outlook and a sense of worth.

Young sportsman stretching before workout outdoors

Stay active

According to Gilbert, focusing on the three pillars of health—sleep, nutrition, and exercise—is crucial. Regular exercise and/or extreme sports like dirt jumping, and motocross once a week play a key role in keeping your mind clear and your body resilient. It not only provides the necessary energy to stay focused during the day but is also an investment in achieving a good night’s sleep.

Engaging in physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, those wonderful “feel-good” chemicals that can boost your mood. So, if you’ve had a tough day, consider combating stress by gathering your family for a short walk—even just five minutes can alleviate anxiety.

It’s even more beneficial if you can incorporate exercise into a natural setting. Research indicates that spending time in nature, known as “forest-bathing” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, not only enhances well-being but also reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and alleviates muscle tension. This doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the wilderness; even a brief stroll through a city park can do the trick.

And if you have a dog, be sure to bring them along, especially if they seem a bit tense lately.

Final thought

To beat stress and feel your best, keep it simple: enjoy activities that truly relax you, reach out to friends or family for support, savour the good stuff in life, reward yourself with some grilled cheese sandwich once in a while, and stay active! Prioritize the three pillars of health—sleep, nutrition, and exercise—because they’re your ticket to mental clarity and resilience.

Add some fun to your routine by taking a family walk, even if it’s just a quick one—nature is a bonus, but a city park stroll works wonders too. Your well-being is a mix of your choices, so make ’em positive and enjoy the good vibes!

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