The Company You Keep Significantly Affects Your Stress
By: Divya Darling
July 22, 2014
You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with… You’ve heard that before too, haven’t you? We’ve all know how important it is to surround ourselves with people we feel good around. Recent research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that what others around us experience affects our endocrine system, which is responsible for our hormone regulation, including the primary biological basis of stress: cortisol.
In this multi-center and multi-layered experiment, researchers found that 26% of participants observing someone else complete a stressful task experienced a physiologically significant increase in their own cortisol level. Another layer of complexity within the experimental design demonstrates that this number increases to 40% when the participant is a romantic partner versus a stranger (10%). This indicates that familiarity plays an important role in how much empathic stress we experience.
The German research team states, “Stress disorders are among the most commonly occurring of all mental disorders. In this context, the question arises whether the stress inevitably unfolding around us has the potential to ‘contaminate’ and compromise us… No matter how strongly we perceive ourselves as autonomous entities emphasizing our individuality, our affective states are linked with those of our fellow human beings…” Evolutionary speaking, human are social creatures and thus, we naturally feel what others around us are feeling. We have evolved in this way because prosocial physiological responses were adaptive prehistorically.
As with nearly all studies I read, I cannot help but ponder how these findings play out in the real world. On average in Australia we spend 16.5% of our time in a day within employment or education contexts (many of us could easily double or triple that), many of which are often high-pressure and deadline-driven environments. Considering my own experience in such a setting, had I known then that my stress levels were potentially affecting everyone else around me, I might have learned mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) much sooner. When the authors of this empathy endocrine study discuss future research, they mention MBSR as an avenue worth pursuing, because previous research in compassion training has been shown to foster positive affect. An appropriate analogy for this form of brain training would be applying a waterproof oil to your boots so that the rain collects in little beads and rolls off, rather than seeping through.
Another element of the experimental design tested observation modality. Observers in one condition witnessed the stressful task performed live, and another condition witnessed it occur on a screen. In the live condition 30% of observers experienced an increase cortisol, versus 24% in the virtual condition. This suggests that when we watch shows on television, that stress still affects nearly one out of four of us on a hormonal level, but that the affect would be more pronounced when telling stories in a group of friends. This is aligned with previous research on the effect of storytelling.
To control for individual differences in empathy, researchers evaluated participants’ trait and state empathic response. They also differentiated between the two aspects of empathic stress: vicarious stress (that which arises through the projection of an observer’s own stress response onto the target, regardless of the target’s response) and stress resonance (the degree of the observer’s stress response as measured against the degree of the target’s stress response). They found a positive correlation between trait and state scores of empathy and stress resonance. This means the more empathetic the observer, the more their cortisol spikes mirrored that of the target. I’m curious about what the results might have yielded had the team also investigated oxytocin.
There was no significant difference between men and women at all in this experiment, which is interesting to note because people commonly perceive women to be more empathetic; these endocrine responses suggest the basis for that may be purely social conditioning.
What does all this mean? Well, like everything else in life, it only has the meaning you give it. If the research team viewed stress as beneficial, do you think they would have used language like “contaminate” in their article? I don’t. Thus, their diction hints at a disabling presupposition: stress is bad for your health. This isn’t always the case, as research demonstrates that it is moderated by belief. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal illustrates this in her TED talk, which she summarises by saying, “We see once again that the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform you experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress you can create resilience.” It’s up to us to adopt enabling beliefs about stress, namely that stress is valuable to us.