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Deep breath

How to contain contagious stress

We’ve all had the experience of “catching” someone else’s stress — whether from a fellow driver on the highway, an angry boss, or a family member who got up on the wrong side of the bed. Researchers are just beginning to study such secondhand stress to understand its effects and how to prevent them.

Veronika Engert, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, said she was surprised when she saw such clear signs of this stress contagion in her lab — because it can be hard to elicit a direct stress response in such an artificial setting.

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To test for this empathic stress, Engert and her colleagues had volunteers watch while
another person — sometimes their spouse, sometimes a stranger — was
subjected to a difficult mock job interview. About 40 percent of the volunteers showed spikes in the stress hormone cortisol while watching their spouse, compared
to 10 percent whose
cortisol spiked while they watched the strangers.

At one level, Engert said, the phenomenon is obvious. We can all get stressed watching tense characters in a movie. “But it’s still quite amazing to see how far it goes – that it really grips you at the core of your physiological stress system.”

Engert said her research has made her rethink her parenting. She used to believe that any time her children spent with her was good time. Now, she’s more concerned about passing her negative stress and its potential health effects on to her 6- and 2-year-old kids.

“When I feel I have this aura of stress around me, I take a walk and come back when I calm down a bit,” she said

Shawn Achor, a consultant and the author of “The Happiness Advantage,” recently wrote for the Harvard Business Review about his own research on managing contagious stress in the workplace. He recommends reframing stressful situations. The jerk who cut you off might have just been laid off or be racing to visit a loved one in the hospital, he said. You can also try to refocus your attention: The next time you feel yourself catching someone else’s negative energy, he suggested, instead spend two minutes paying attention to your breath or writing an e-mail praising someone.

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“What’s incredible,” he said, is that very small changes can make a profound difference. “To show people that their behavior matters short-
circuits stress.”

KAREN WEINTRAUB