Is Anxiety Contagious?

Yes, you can absorb other people's emotions. Here's a strategy for preventing anxiety overload.

Similar to how you can catch a cold or the flu, you can catch anxiety too—whether listening to a friend vent about their job troubles or watching a TV interview with survivors of a natural disaster. Given how the human brain is wired, "It's all too easy for us to 'catch' emotions," said Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California.

Specialized brain cells called mirror neurons may play a role in our tendency to soak up anxiety from external sources. Mirror neurons fire up not only when we act but also when we witness an act happening to someone else. For example, if you see someone accidentally smash their thumb with a hammer, how does that feel in your own body?

"Stress contagion—the tendency to absorb others' stress, anxiety, and tension—is a form of this human propensity," said Dr. Manly. And the more empathetic you are, the more susceptible you may be.

The idea of stress and anxiety being contagious has been suggested in research. For example, a small 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggested that when people watched nervous speakers talk, their heart rates went up—part of the fight-or-flight response. The study also showed that those with more empathy tended to absorb others' stress more quickly—although not necessarily at a higher level than less empathetic people.

While stress can be contagious, you're not helpless. Practice these strategies before you find yourself in the next angst-filled situation.

Make a Positive Pivot

Let's say your friends are venting about politics and all you wish is to enjoy your dinner out and not worry about the next election. Validate their point and angle the conversation in a more positive direction, said Jennifer L. Taitz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychiatry at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

"For example, try saying something like, 'Ugh, this is a tough time. Can we each share one thing that we're grateful for?' Topics do set the tone, and you can have some say," said Dr. Taitz.

Label Your Emotions

Giving a name to your emotions as you notice them "is a powerful way to regulate your feelings, rather than feel consumed by them," said Dr. Taitz.

For example, acknowledging that you're "feeling anxious because Maggie's stressed about her job...because my job security also seems shaky," helps you get control by confronting what's making you feel agitated and identifying why.

Mentally Remove Yourself From the Situation

"Imagine yourself detaching and 'floating above' the situation as though you're a researcher or photographer," suggested Dr. Manly. As you do, release any judgment. "It also helps to breathe deeply, as full and focused breathing supports the calming action of your parasympathetic nervous system."

This strategy can help you recognize that you don't need to be involved in the stress of others. You can distance yourself, emotionally and mentally.

Take Action

When anxiety starts bubbling up inside you, ask yourself: "Can I do anything about this issue?" If the answer is no, then inhale deeply and visualize letting it go as you slowly exhale.

On the other hand, if the answer is yes, you can do something about it. "Take some sort of action," said Dr. Manly.

For example, let's say the more news you read, the more uneasy you get. Even a small step—like turning off news alerts on your phone or limiting your time on Facebook—is a small, positive move toward changing the situation. "Your body and mind will register that something is being done," she explained.

Deflect Their Anxiety

When a friend is having a tough time, of course, you want to help them through it. But rather than assume it's best to sit and chat for hours ruminating over the situation, "Plan an activity first," advised Dr. Taitz. Cook dinner together or go to a fitness class. That way, "You can catch up once you're both feeling less depleted," she said. "Co-ruminating isn't great for either mood or closeness."

Reframe Anxiety as a Good Thing

"Research shows that those who view stress as a helpful, energizing force feel better emotionally and physically," said Scott Crabtree, chief happiness officer of Happy Brain Science, an organization that teaches team-building and how to be happier at work.

When you feel yourself getting worked up, your initial reaction may be, "Uh oh, this is bad." Instead, reframe your anxiety. Tell yourself you're psyching yourself up to make something positive happen—and then make it happen.

Make Meditation a Daily Routine

Quieting your mind "boosts your emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, and ability to accept without judgment," said Crabtree. "Mindful people are less susceptible to the stress of others."

First thing in the morning or right before bed are prime times to squeeze in a meditation session. "Do whatever you can," said Crabtree. "One minute of meditation is infinitely more effective than zero. It's more about practicing—and reminding yourself and your body to relax—than it is to meditate for a long time."

Move Your Muscles

​Think of how you feel physically when you're stressed: Your heart beats harder and faster, your breathing becomes shallow, your palms sweat, and your body switches into fight-or-flight mode. You may as well follow through on that adrenaline surge and do something active requiring serious fuel. "It doesn't have to be a marathon or even a real workout," said Crabtree. "Any physical activity helps your body use that stress energy." ​

Practice Strategies When Calm

Everyone experiences stress and anxiety—some of it we have control over; some of it we don't. And sometimes we take on other people's anxiety.

When you feel you don't have total control over a stressful situation, remember that you do have control over the tools you use to prevent anxiety overload. Practice these strategies when you're not in a stressful situation. So, when those stressful situations do arise, you'll more quickly deflect other people's anxiety instead of taking it on as your own.

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