Emotions humans express, other humans are able to catch, because we are designed to mimic others, with negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and depression being particularly contagious.
There is a basic evolutionary reason for this behaviour. Humans are programmed to recognise that if something is causing a person around us the be stressed, then we also need to understand what the stressor is, in case we need to escape also.
The really interesting thing about emotional contagion is that not only do you pick up on stress in others, you actually then start to copy them.
Stress mimicry is so innate it even happens to babies, who have been shown to ‘catch’ anxiety from their mother.
In Germany, a study at the Max Planck Institute found that 26%of people who saw someone else showing signs of stress also experienced a rise in the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies.
Certain personality types are more prone to ’catching stress’. If you are a particularly empathic person then you will be more likely to absorb how others are feeling. The mirror neurons, the specific brain cells that allow us to mimic others’ emotions, have proven to be more active in empathic people than those with other personalities.
Can you catch Stress?
Read the following statements and note how many you relate to. The more statements you agree with, the more likely you are to be affected by others stress.
- My mood quickly changes when I’m with others
- I startle easily
- I always feel better if I get out into nature
- I tend to leave gatherings early
- I find crowds very draining
- I prefer to see friends in small groups
- I’m often bothered by noise or smells in my surroundings
- I need time to myself after I’ve spent a lot of time with others