April 21, 2021
Here’s a situation that’s likely familiar for anyone in a long-term relationship: you walk in the door after a difficult day at work. Your significant other is ready for an enjoyable, relaxing night, but in short order, they become as irritable as you are . How is this even possible? Is stress actually contagious?
In the most literal sense, it’s not: stress is not a communicable disease. But stress can spread between people — your mood can undoubtedly affect those around you.
Stress is both a physical and psychological reaction. It is an “alarm system” in your brain, designed to protect you. When you perceive a threat, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure raises. This “fight or flight” system is hard-wired into every person, and is essential for dealing with adversity in life. Sometimes, managing daily, never-ending pressures can quickly compound into a situation that’s hard to manage.
Everyone reacts to stress differently. Pain, overeating, anger, depression, negativity, crying, and sometimes, addictive behaviors — like smoking or drinking alcohol — are all common reactions to stress, and these visible responses can be the impetus for those around you to “catch” your stress and begin reacting themselves. You may be able to manage these reactions in certain instances, but chronic stress, in particular, often results in reactions that can be harmful to your health.
If you’re exhibiting outward signs of stress, you probably can’t keep it from spreading to others. The good news is that individual episodes of stress don’t generally cause problems for healthy people, and can even be beneficial if you’re working to confront a challenge, such as paying your bills, taking care of a child, or helping a loved one with an illness.
In instances where you are dealing with stress that you don’t want to spread, such as difficulty with the chronic stress of daily life, the only solution is to manage your own stress before it can spread by identifying effective coping techniques.
All stress management begins with being able to identify your stressors. Stressors are either external — things that happen to you such as major life changes or in the workplace — or internal stressors, such as fears or managing uncertainty. Writing down the sources of your stress allows you to build a plan for addressing them.
Identifying your stressors has another important benefit if your stress is affecting others: it allows you to share where your stress is coming from and ask for help! Relaxation techniques, self-care, a positive mindset, and talking through stressors are all easier with someone else, and it can also help them manage the stress they might be “catching” from you.
Stress is unavoidable, and can even be healthy. What’s essential is being aware both of what your sources of stress are and the impact it’s having on others — and ensuring you have a plan in place to manage it effectively.