Turns Out, Stress Is Contagious (And It Can Actually Change Your Brain)

Updated 03/15/18
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

If you've ever felt like the stress of a friend, family member, partner, or even an acquaintance was rubbing off on you, a new study has confirmed that it's not just in your head. Study author Jaideep Bains, Ph.D., and his team at the University of Calgary found that not only is stress contagious, but this "transmitted" stress can also change your brain in the same way that real stress does.

"Brain changes associated with stress underpin many mental illnesses including PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression," said Bains, professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, to Science Daily. As a refresher, "depression, trauma, and anxiety are neurodegenerative conditions; they are brain damaging," Steve P. Levine, MD, board-certified psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies, told MyDomaine. "If you look at pictures of people's brains who have been suffering for a long time with depression, you will see that there's shrinkage of some structures, and there is the loss of the number, function, and quality of connections between certain areas of the brain."

The new study, which was conducted on pairs of male and female mice, suggests that simply being around someone who's stressed out may impact your own mental well-being. The researchers removed one mouse from each male-female pair and exposed it to a mild stressor before returning it to its partner. After their reunion, researchers analyzed their brain cells, specifically CRH neurons, which control the brain's response to stress. They ultimately found that the networks in the brains of both mice, the stressed and the naïve partner, were altered in the same way.

This all came down to a so-called "alarm pheromone," which was released from the stressed mouse and detected by the partner, who in turn felt the same stressful emotions. 

"What was remarkable was that CRH neurons from the partners, who were not themselves exposed to an actual stress, showed changes that were identical to those we measured in the stressed mice," added lead study author Toni-Lee Sterley. Bains also suggested that these findings may be applicable to humans. "We readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it," he concludes. "There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD.

On the flip side, the ability to sense another's emotional state is a key part of creating and building social bonds."

Head over to Science Daily for more.

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