Yes, Your Stress Really Is Rubbing Off On Everyone Around You

05/05/2014 08:24 am ET | Updated May 06, 2014
Henrik Sorensen via Getty Images

If you're not going to stop stressing for your own sake, then at least do it for the sake of others: A new study shows that when you're stressed, it can actually "rub off" on people around you.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden found that for some people, watching someone else go through a stressful moment can lead to an increase in their own stress hormone levels.

"The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing," study researcher Veronika Engert, of the Max Planck Institute, said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, involved partners that were made up of either strangers of the opposite sex, or loved ones. Researchers had one person in the pair watch the other through a one-way mirror, or through a live video feed, as he or she had to complete arithmetic or mental tasks and interviews with supposed behavioral analysts looking on (so as to induce stress). Most of the people who were put up to the stressful task had increases in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol (only 5 percent of the participants didn't experience a cortisol increase).

Researchers found that overall, 26 percent of the observers also experienced increases in cortisol levels, even though they were not directly exposed to stress. The percentage was even higher for observers who were watching loved ones go through the stressful tasks -- 40 percent experienced increased cortisol levels -- but lower for those watching a stranger -- 10 percent.

Even though the percentage of people experiencing increased cortisol from watching their partner go through the stressful task was higher when watched in real life through the one-way mirror -- 30 percent -- the cortisol levels were still raised in 24 percent of observers when they watched through the video feed. This finding suggests that things like watching stressful moments on TV might be enough to raise cortisol levels, researchers said.

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