Can Anxiety Be Contagious? We Asked Experts

The truth about whether you can "catch" a mental illness the way you catch a cold.

Can you "catch" a mental illness like anxiety the same way you catch a cold? A small, 2014 study in the journal Memory & Cognition assessed people's beliefs around that question. Many study participants believed that interacting with someone with a mental illness for a lengthy period was enough to spread symptoms. And when it came to generalized anxiety disorder, study participants felt it was possible that a person's anxiety could "rub off" on someone else.¹

In reality, there's no evidence that mental illness is contagious. "The idea that social interactions can increase the risk of being diagnosed with mental illness probably stems from the fact that emotions can easily spread from person to person," Judy Ho, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in Southern California, told Health. "But emotions are transient and do not represent significant mental illnesses that require treatment."

What Causes Mental Illness

What causes mental illness is a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors.² A family history of mental illness and traumatic childhood experiences can also influence a person's risk.³

"Mental illness is thought to be caused by an array of genetic or biological and environmental factors," Ho explained. "It has been found to partially stem from inherited traits, as mental illness is more common in individuals whose blood relatives also have a mental illness. Environmental factors such as trauma, abuse as a child, or even exposure to negative conditions or toxins before birth may also be linked to mental illness."

When it comes to how we feel, things get a little more nuanced. It is true that we can pick up the emotions and habits of people we spend time with. If your best friend functions in a constant state of stress and worry, you could start feeling similar emotions. But feeling anxious around your friend doesn't mean you have an anxiety disorder.

"Emotions are contagious because we are social beings that respond to our environment," Ho explained. "Emotional contagion is feeling or expressing a similar emotion to those around you because their feelings cue you to believe you should have those same emotional reactions. We watch others for how to respond, and emotional contagion is an extreme form of that."

Feeling Anxious vs. Having an Anxiety Disorder

Having an anxiety disorder is different than feeling anxious about a future event or around a stressed-out friend. Anxiety disorders involve an excessive and often intense level of fear or anxiety.⁴ Unlike occasional bouts of nervousness, anxiety disorders often get in the way of your work, school, or relationships.⁵

There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including: ⁴

  • Generalized anxiety disorder, which involves persistent and excessive worry.
  • Panic disorder, a cause recurrent panic attacks.
  • Specific phobias, like fear of flying.
  • Agoraphobia, or fear of specific situations, like being in crowds.
  • Social anxiety disorder, such as fear of meeting people or public speaking.
  • Separation anxiety disorder, or fear of being separated from a loved one.

Although you may pick up on the emotions of those around you, a mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder, can't be transmitted from one person to another like the flu. "Psychiatric and psychological dysfunction is not caused by an infective agent, and therefore one cannot 'catch' it from an ill person," Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Weill­ Cornell Medical College, told Health.

Getting Help for an Anxiety Disorder

Noticing changes in your mental health can be alarming. It makes sense you'd want to pinpoint the cause. Talking to a therapist can help you get to the root of any mental health issues you suspect you might be dealing with.

And if you think someone else's mental illness is influencing your emotional state, don't just cut them out of your life to fix things. "When people avoid being with someone who has depression or anxiety because they fear catching it, it's really unfortunate because it further isolates the patient who is actually struggling and needs support—support which will not harm the person giving it," said Dr. Saltz.

If you have the emotional bandwidth, give the other person a shoulder to lean on. People living with mental illnesses suffer from enough stigma as it is; showing empathy and being there for them won't mess with your head.


  1. Marsh JK, Shanks LL. Thinking you can catch mental illness: how beliefs about membership attainment and category structure influence interactions with mental health category members. Memory and Cognition. 2014;42(7):1011-1025. doi:10.3758/s13421-014-0427-9
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Looking at My Genes: What Can They Tell Me About My Mental Health?
  3. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. Mental Disorders.
  4. American Psychiatric Association. What Are Anxiety Disorders?
  5. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. Anxiety.
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