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Is stress contagious?

According to a new study, spending time with a neurotic can really get inside your head.
Do you feel like your partner's stress is stressing you out? You're not crazy. But you might be now. Photo: ISTOCK

No matter how lowkey you are, hang around a nervous nelly and it's likely to put you on edge yourself. 

Stress-by-proxy definitely feels real, at least anecdotally. But a new study suggests that being around an anxious type may actually alter your brain, inducing the same stress response that it would were the anxiety your own.

The research, published in Nature Neuroscience, examined how this transfer of stress plays out in pairs of mice. Jaideep Bains, PhD, and his team from the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, temporarily separated each pair, exposing one mouse to a mild stressor, and then reuniting it with its partner. Then they analyzed each mouse's CRH neurons, which govern the brain's response to stress, and found the activity was one and the same. 

Why does this happen? The researchers discovered that in response to stress, one mouse releases a kind of chemical alert signal that coaxes a similar cerebral response in the other.  

The most basic explanation is that this occurs as a means for mammals to communicate with each other, which is obviously beneficial for survival. Bains explained that "the ability to sense another's emotional state is a key part of creating and building social bonds."

Similarly, the researchers found that the mice were also able to transfer calm vibes from one to the other, but this effect wasn’t consistent for both male and female mice. After spending a little time with unstressed mice, stressed female mice were able to relax, and saw their brain’s stress response diminish by half. But this didn’t work for anxy male mice, who remained stuck on anxiety alert, even after interacting with chill vermin. Chalk it up to women being much more adaptive and better able to handle it, because we've always had to.  

While this stress contagion effect hasn’t exactly been tested out on humans, the researchers suspect they'd observe the same thing. “We readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it,” noted Bains. "There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD."

The next time you’re feeling on edge, at least attempt to be sensitive of how your bad vibes might be rubbing off on others. Hopefully, we can all find the right person to spend our time with — someone with whom we can swap good cheer and anxy vibes in equal part. That would definitely be chill.