We are now at the height of the holiday season. And ya better watch out…because stress can be a killer. In fact, we can blame stress for its role in countless health problems, including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. And there’s one more important fact you need to know about stress: It’s contagious! In fact, this contagion is another big reason why it’s so dangerous. I’ll explain more about how stress spreads in a moment. But first, let’s take a closer look at why we feel stress…
Stress is a very subjective condition. No two people respond to life’s ups and downs in the same way. For example, spending money shopping for clothes is extremely stressful for some people. For others, it’s a joyful experience.
Furthermore, some people have a higher stress tolerance than others. We know that Type A personalities are naturally high-strung and react strongly to stress. Yet, Type B personalities are more easy-going and can tolerate more stress. And in the 1950s, researchers found that these behavior patterns affect health. In fact, they found that Type A personalities were more likely to develop coronary heart disease than Type B personalities.
We also now recognize there are Type C personalities. They actually deny their feelings of stress. Outwardly, they appear cool as a cucumber. But by ignoring their stress, they wind up heightening their risk of developing all the major health problems I mentioned above. (Of course, there is one other “type.” The type of boss who says, “I don’t get heart attacks, I give them.”)
All this can make stress hard to pin down.
We do have one good tool for measuring stress. We call it the Life Change Index. As I mentioned last week, this tool counts and scores major life changes that occur during a lifetime. A higher score–with more major life changes–means you run a greater risk of heart attack and other diseases.
Interestingly, this index measures “major life changes.” Not just “negative life changes.” That’s because the body experiences stress as stress. It doesn’t distinguish between a wedding and a divorce. Or between a new job versus a layoff. We might interpret a given change as “good” or “bad.” But our health does not.
We also have another tool for diagnosing stress: our own feelings. Turns out that some people can be very good at judging whether they feel stress.
In fact, in a recent study in the UK, researchers simply asked men and women if they experienced high stress. If the subjects said yes, the researchers discovered that this accurately predicted future heart health.
Overall, humans are largely creatures of habit. We do not respond well to change–positive or negative. And even the most unique characters among us are somewhat “wired” for conformity.
For example, when you see someone laugh or smile, most of us tend to return the smile. Or when your partner–or even your pet–yawns, chances are, you will too. So, naturally, when you work with stressed-out colleagues, you feel stress too.
I wrote about this interconnectedness in my special report called “Top of the Food Chain Diet.” You see, humans are unique among large animals at the top of the food chain (along with canines). We work in groups rather than alone. And as social animals, we are biologically wired to relate to others. Whether laughing, yawning…or panicking.
In fact, our brains have “mirror neurons.” These highly evolved brain cells react by mimicking the actions and emotions of others.
Italian scientists first identified mirror neurons in the 1990s. They learned about these special neurons while studying macaque monkeys. Specific groups of neurons in the brain lit up when the monkeys performed, or even just observed,
specific types of movements. Turns out, mirror neurons in monkeys and humans are located near motor neurons. So, reflected behaviors affect our movements, our speech, and even our emotions. Seems like the old saying “monkey see, monkey do” applies to us too!
This reflection is one reason why stress is highly contagious.
Researchers have observed the contagious nature of stress for a long time. But now we know something about how and why it happens.
Anxiety almost appears to spread like a virus. Crossover stress occurs between spouses and among coworkers. And stress can also spill over from the workplace to the home. And vice versa.
We process stress in a core of the ancient, “reptilian” brain. We can’t consciously control this part of the brain. And it simply can’t rationalize the stresses of the modern world.
No wonder stress factors into five out of six of the leading causes of death. And the CDC now recognizes that stress kills more people than traffic accidents or smoking.
Fortunately, you can learn to manage your everyday stress so that it doesn’t actually kill you. Many different mind-body techniques can help you deal with stress. From meditation to acupuncture to therapeutic massage.
But first, you should learn which personality type you have. This will help you decide which technique will work best for you. For example, hypnosis or meditation works well for some personalities. But not for others.
Take this short online quiz to learn which personality type you have. Then, you can make a better-informed decision about which mind-body technique to use.
Also, try not to take the bait when someone dumps emotional stress on you. Instead of latching on, take a step back and reframe the story to reality. Someone else’s bad planning or irrational stress is not your emergency. Use your more evolved rational brain instead of allowing your reptilian brain to call the shots.
It helps to remove yourself from the situation. Go for a walk outside. Listen to some music.
Without a doubt, stress is contagious. But, over the long term, you can learn how to reduce your reaction to other people’s stress and limit the contagion. It takes practice.
- “The Mind’s Mirror,” Monitor Staff, American Psychological Association, 2005; 36(9)
- “Increased risk of coronary heart disease among individuals reporting adverse impact of stress on their health: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study,” European Heart Journal 2013; epub ahead of print June 26