Is Stress Contagious? What We Know

Whether you're at work or a family get-together, there's probably one person who controls the emotional tone. Family gatherings might be influenced by a strong-willed mother or a conservative grandfather. The tone of work — toxic or not — is often set by a manager or other type of leader. If these people are jovial and relaxed, you might feel relaxed. If these leaders are having a bad day, watch out. Stress is contagious.

Psychologists call it "emotional contagion" because it works in the same way as a virus (via Positive Psychology). When someone around you is feeling and behaving in a certain way, you become susceptible to that person's emotions and behaviors. If other people around you are happy, you can "catch" their happiness. 

On the other hand, if people are stressed, they can influence how much stress you can feel. If you're the source of stress at work, you could be losing out on productivity because people prefer collaborating with others who don't make them feel stressed (via Harvard Business Review).

Emotional contagion occurs quickly

You might not be aware of it at first, and it can occur within a fraction of a second. Without thinking, you might be inclined to reflect someone's thoughts or actions. That's why people in leadership roles need to be especially aware of their thoughts and behaviors. People will turn to them and be more influenced by their interpersonal cues.

This happens deep within the brain. The neurons that cause one person's actions can trigger the same neurons in someone else. Seeing a smile or a frown touches those same parts of the brain. If we see examples of stressful behaviors at work, it resonates and strengthens those stressed-out feelings within us. Even if we acknowledge the stress within us, the stress of others could cause us to make mistakes at work.

Emotional contagion doesn't necessarily have to occur in face-to-face interactions. Posts on social media can have an emotional influence on us. A news feed with positive messages can maybe uplift you, but negative posts might sink your mood (via Positive Psychology).

Protecting yourself and others from emotional contagion

Emotional contagion on its basic level is fundamental to our interpersonal relationships with others. It's how we develop empathy and connect with others, according to Psychology Today. Some people, however, are particularly susceptible to other people's emotions, especially if they have a history of emotionally unstable family members. Rather than mimic someone's anger, some experience "counter-contagion" and feel fear. Being around others can be emotionally exhausting and might require spending some time alone to ease the emotional tension.

You can protect yourself from emotional contagion by surrounding yourself not only with people who uplift you but also with people who can paint a rational picture for you. You might not be able to avoid the stressed-out person at work, but you can counter their negativity by offering your support. In terms of emotional contagion on social media, avoid believing that the negativity has something to do with you. Most of all, don't participate in other people's bad behavior.

Because you can be the source of emotional contagion, check in with how your lifestyle is affecting your moods. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet can help you get a better handle on your moods. Sometimes setting aside your impulse to react until you can find a healthy outlet will protect others from your temporary negativity. Limiting your social media time can help you avoid triggering any emotional stress or negativity you might already be feeling.