What is stress and is it contagious?

Posted by Elisabeth Peters  on September 20, 2016 in Health, 482 words.


There is so much to say about stress, which is probably why there is so much research on this topic. Some very interesting findings have been published that could be a bit of an eye-opener for all of us.


What is stress?

Many people have an understanding of what stress is, but most of us usually have a personal definition of it; I feel stressed in these type of situations or this is what it does to my body. Stress is regarded as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension caused by adverse or demanding circumstances, which usually comes with a physical reaction.

The effects of stress have been researched by the University of British Columbia, which came with a very interesting publication recently. They have found that stress could be highly contagious!

In their study, they compared stress levels of students and teachers, by measuring cortisol (stress hormone) levels. It was found that in classrooms where teachers were more stressed, experienced more burnout or feelings of emotional exhausting, the cortisol levels of the students were elevated. This suggests that stress contagion is taking place in these classrooms among teachers and their students. This is seen as a cyclical process by the researchers and it is not yet clear what is a cause and what is an effect. It could be that teachers receive inadequate support, which impacts upon their ability to effectively manage their classroom. Consequently, students’ needs are not being met and this then leads to stress. However, it is also possible that the stress originates from students who may be more challenging to teach because of behavioral problems or special needs, which results in higher stress levels experienced by teachers.

Stress contagious

This particular study examined this process in the classroom, but shouldn’t we all be aware of this all the time? The results point in the direction of stress being transferrable to others around us and in my opinion, an important target group that should be aware of this is parents and carers. In another study, it was found that a mother’s physiological stress is “caught” entirely by an infant through interactions with the mother, even without exposure to the stressor itself. Among adults, stress has been observed to “spread” too.

This spreading of stress means that people with stressful jobs like teachers need adequate support to battle stress and burnout in the classroom. If this support is not given it could damage students’ learning and wellbeing, since higher cortisol levels have been linked to learning difficulties and mental health problems. The fact that stress is contagious and that when you’re experiencing stress it probably affects the ones around you significantly, calls upon the importance of raising awareness. In this light, stress relief techniques like mindfulness are not only helpful for you, but it could maybe even influence your whole family’s wellbeing.


Feature illustration by Allys Pineda 

About the Author

elisabeth peters

Elisabeth Peters is a Psychologist offering counselling and educational consultancy. She’s passionate about developing ways of dealing with the stresses of life and significantly reducing worries.


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