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Stress Transmission: Mechanisms, Predictors and Solutions for Emotional Contagion

Stress has often been understood as an individual level phenomenon, but research suggests that it has a strong interpersonal component as well. 

Indeed, we’re social animals, and so, we naturally align with the emotions that we perceive in others, such as when someone smiles at us, we smile back. In other words, emotions are contagious.

Our ability to feel others’ emotions helps us navigate social interactions and ultimately coordinate as a species. In addition, people’s responses can be a valuable source of information because they provide a reference point for our own response in a situation. 

This doesn’t pose a problem when the emotion we observe is positive. But what happens when someone is stressed? A detrimental consequence of our inherent social nature is stress contagion, which is when stress is transmitted from one person to another.

On the one hand, witnessing someone’s stress response is useful because it clarifies the demands of the situation and the resources available. On the other hand, it can mean that negative emotions are transmitted through a group of people, thus impacting morale, productivity and wellbeing.

Mechanisms: How contagion occurs

Leaders and managers are a particularly prime source of stress transmission simply because of their influence and visibility in an organisation. A review of the topic outlined three direct ways that stress may be communicated in the workplace: (1) Facial expressions; (2) Behavioural reactions; and (3) Physiological reactions.

For example, if you’re working towards a client deadline, then there’s a possibility you will become stressed if you observe your manager frowning (facial expressions), pacing the room (behavioural), or sweating (physiological). 

Stress can also be communicated indirectly, such as if your leader or manager withdraws from work, fails to plan or struggles to organize the team sufficiently. In fact, political scientists found that approximately 10% of a manager’s stress is transmitted to employees, and this effect is detectable a full year after the manager first reports symptoms of stress.

Predictors: When contagion is likely

According to the Neuroleadership Institute, the upshot of stress contagion means that people’s cognitive capacity is reduced due to increased activity in the limbic system, which is responsible for fight or flight. Prolonged stress can also lower morale and, of course, negatively affect wellbeing. 

Yet there are certain traits that predict the extent to which an individual will be impacted by stress transmission. Unsurprisingly, empathy is one such characteristic. Research suggests that people who have a hyperactive mirror neuron system are more empathetic because these mirror neurons fire when we observe another person. This means that they feel the stress of others more acutely than those with lower empathy.

A recent study revealed that three traits can actually protect someone from stress contagion: (1) Emotional stability (i.e., low levels of neuroticism); (2) High conscientiousness (i.e., self-control and careful consideration); and (3) An internal locus of control (i.e., believing that your actions impact the outcome of events as opposed to luck or fate).

Solutions: What protects from contagion

So how can you protect yourself from emotional contagion? Melody Wilding, executive coach for sensitive strivers suggests:

  1. Emotional temperature check: We go for weeks or even months without really asking ourselves how we’re feeling. But you’re likely exposed to stress signals multiple times a day, which are seemingly innocuous, such as a distracted colleague or a blunt answer to a question on your messaging platform. This means you’re absorbing the stress without realising. Not only does checking in with yourself once a day ensure you don’t carry your emotions into other interactions, but it allows you to take action before your own stress gets too high. 
  2. Boundary visualisation: It’s difficult to create a separation between ourselves and a stressed colleague because we can’t not communicate with them. Yet this leaves us susceptible to their emotions. It’s crucial here to remind yourself that you are not that person, which can be facilitated by visualising a glass pane between you both such that their reaction cannot affect you. 
  3. Co-regulation: If someone is stressed on your team, you can leverage the positives of emotional contagion by intentionally calming or soothing yourself (e.g., speaking more quietly and slowly, consciously slow down your breathing, relax your shoulders). Once they witness your response, they will likely mirror you and do the same, thereby reducing the tension in the environment. 

Word count: 722

Date: 1st August