Is stress contagious?
"We absorb the stress of the people around us, so that when they appear stressed, we start to feel stressed too."
If the woman had sat elsewhere, my day would have turned out completely different.
I had set aside an hour to get a manicure at my favorite salon in Westfield. I don’t get massages, and I don’t get facials, so a manicure is one of the only ways I pamper myself. And I really like to relax and enjoy it.
Well, so much for that plan. About five minutes after I sat down, a fortysomething woman in a business suit sat next to me. “File and change polish,” she snapped at the manicurist. She was wearing shellac polish, which requires soaking off for around twenty minutes. The manicurist wrapped the woman’s nails in foil, and then proceeded to give another customer a pedicure while the twenty minutes passed.
Well, Business Suit didn’t like that. She wasn’t happy at all.
“Where is she?” she began muttering after three or four minutes.
“This is ridiculous,” she growled after another minute or two.
“Oh for god’s sake,” she declared loudly, when the manicurist still hadn’t returned.
She swiveled in her chair. She looked around and sighed. She tapped her feet. She oozed stress from every Business Suited pore, and it was making me very tense indeed.
I began feeling anxious too. Where was that manicurist? How long was she going to take? The wait was killing me. Despite the fact that I had absolutely nothing invested in Business Suit’s life and was not in a rush myself, I was desperate for her to get her polish removed. And I simply couldn’t wait to get out of the salon.
Even after I had finally finished my manicure (my god, they really took a long time, didn’t they?) it took me a full half an hour to calm down. And it got me thinking. How did a complete stranger make me so uptight? Why did I care whether she had been served or not? Why did I let her destroy my precious free time?
Did I actually catch Business Suit’s stress?
Well, according to Professor Elaine Hatfield, a psychologist from the University of Hawaii, I did. She recently researched ‘emotional contagion’, and concluded that stress in the workplace can be as contagious as a cold.
'People seem to be capable of mimicking others' facial, vocal, and postural expressions with stunning rapidity,' she said. 'As a consequence, they are able to feel themselves into those other emotional lives to a surprising extent.'
In other words, we absorb the stress of the people around us, so that when they appear stressed, we start to feel stressed too. What’s more, Professor Hatfield said, women are more prone to absorbing the stress of others than men, as women ‘tend to be more in tune to other people's feelings.’
So clearly stress is contagious in a work environment, but what about in a nail salon?
Well, yes. Emotional contagion can occur anywhere. After all, emotional contagion is very closely related to empathy. The very ability we have to identify and relate to the pain / sadness / happiness / excitement of others gives us the propensity to absorb those emotions ourselves.
Many scientists believe that our emotional contagion stems from a special class of brain cells called ‘mirror neurons’. The same neurons that fire in the brain of a person performing an action will also fire in the brain of an individual observing that person perform an action. So when I watched Business Suit swivel, mutter and tap, my own swivel, mutter and tap neurones were firing all over the place. The stress that I observed in her became transferred to my own brain, so that within minutes, I felt almost as stressed as her.
Now of course, not everyone is as susceptible to emotional contagion as me. Some people are less sensitive, and are able to more or less detach themselves from the feelings of those around them.
But if you’re like me, and are highly attuned to other people’s moods, you may need to take precautions. Distance yourself from the stress-head in the office. Don’t sit next to the agitated man in the cafe.
And when you’re going for a manicure, pop in your iPod, and tune out.