Even the observation of stressed strangers via video transmission was enough to put some people on red alert, researchers found.

Whether at work or on television: someone is always experiencing stress, and this stress can affect the general environment in a physiologically quantifiable way through increased concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, researchers said.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the Technische Universitat Dresden found that empathic stress reactions could be independent of ("vicarious stress") or proportional to ("stress resonance") the stress reactions of the actively stressed individuals.
During the stress test, the subjects had to struggle with difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews, while two supposed behavioural analysts assessed their performance.

Only five percent of the directly stressed test subjects managed to remain calm; the others displayed a physiologically significant increase in their cortisol levels.

In total, 26 percent of observers who were not directly exposed to any stress whatsoever also showed a significant increase in cortisol.

The effect was particularly strong when observer and stressed individual were partners in a couple relationships (40 percent).
However, even when watching a complete stranger, the stress was transmitted to ten percent of the observers. Accordingly, emotional closeness is a facilitator but not a necessary condition for the occurrence of empathic stress.

When the observers watched the events directly through a one-way mirror, 30 percent of them experienced a stress response.
However, even presenting the stress test only virtually via video transmission was sufficient to significantly increase the cortisol levels of 24 percent of the observers.

"This means that even television programmes depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers. Stress has enormous contagion potential," said Veronika Engert, one of the study's first authors.

"A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course. When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol," said Engert.

"However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good. They have a negative impact on the immune system and neurotoxic properties in the long term," Engert added.


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