Did You Know That Anxiety Is Actually Contagious?
Dear friend, we have our own relationship with anxiety, thank you very much. Please don’t share yours.
A job interview, meeting his parents, your commute, a trip home, balancing work and baby, a cancer diagnosis, everyday living. The reasons we feel anxious are as varied as we are.
Stress, trauma, and fear are more labels for anxiety. Does a day go by when we don’t meet one of these face-to-face in a dark alley?
Anxiety is a normal emotion that can cause increased alertness, fear, nervousness and apprehension. It can manifest physically as an increased heart rate or blood pressure, perspiration and stomach problems, headaches, and shortness of breath. In other words, that feeling that the top of your head is going to blow off, your heart is exploding from your chest and you’re about to be relieved of lunch.
Sometimes, anxiety is actually beneficial. Occasional feelings of anxiety are not only normal, they exist to ensure our very survival. Anxiety in certain situations can have you on high alert, making sure that you’re aware of everything around you. It may alter your emotional expression and it’s meant to alter your behavior. In response to danger, our bodies flood with the hormone adrenaline which then triggers the flight or fight response. It for sure has saved your ancestors from a zebra stampede or a monkey attack on more than one occasion.
Anxiety is a mixed bag. It may cause you to be emotional and lash out but it can also provide that little nudge, that excitement, that helps you bring your A-game. It can spur you to do that extra bit of prep for something important or have you on high alert, noticing what you otherwise might not.
In an evolutionary glitch, our body still reacts to our stress in the same way as it did for our ancestors. But now most of our stressors are frankly much more benign. Most of our anxieties now are not about life and death but our body still reacts to them as though they are. This leaves many of us in a perpetual state of high anxiety, unable to calm our minds or our bodies and reacting out of proportion to what we’re experiencing. This is the opposite of benign.
This is the form of anxiety that can be debilitating, life-altering, stigmatizing and for which people are often medicated. Hopefully that’s not the anxiety you’ve been experiencing but I’ll bet that many of you have.
And as if that’s not bad enough, recently, it’s been discovered that anxiety is contagious.
Another evolutionary gift, we are wired to pick up on how others around us are feeling. In the past, our very survival could depend on accurately reading others. That ability helps us manage our interactions and navigate our relationships. It’s a good thing. But in the case of negative emotions, too much of a good thing.
Our ability to read each other’s emotions has been documented, studies have shown heightened cortisol levels in groups of people where some of those people are performing anxiety inducing tasks. In mice, it’s been established that inducing mild stress in a few mice results in mirrored brain activity in partner mice once the stressed mice were returned to their cages.
While research supports the notion that stress is contagious, we also know inherently that this is so. How do you feel when your partner comes home in a very bad mood? Or your boss is clearly stressed? Or your sister is in a perpetual state of anxiety? We will notice it and we might label their emotional state (or unkindly, them!), we might call it reading their energy, or say that they have a negative vibe. But before long we’ll start to feel it too.
Before we look at how to avoid “catching” someone else’s anxiety, how do we make sure that we’re not sharing our own?
If you want to avoid medication and their side effects and take control of anxiety yourself, the answer is in the vagus nerve. What is the vagus nerve, you might ask? All the facts are here. But to summarize, the vagus nerve connects the brain to the heart, lungs and the gut as well as other organs and areas. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health. The vagus nerve is a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system and “toning” the vagus nerve can improve anxiety. It will help you relax more quickly after you experience stress. This is how you tone it:
- Deep and slow breathing
- Singing, humming, chanting
- Socializing and laughing
- Omega 3s
- Cold Exposure
That’s a prescription we can get behind! For more information on ways you can deal with your stress and anxiety, the details are here.
How do we resist taking on others’ anxiety?
- Acknowledge the emotion you’re reading from someone and give yourself permission to reject that emotional state.
- Check in with yourself and ask “Is this my anxiety or someone else’s?” If it’s not, take a minute to do some deep breathing and visualize an energetic field around yourself that anxiety can’t cross.
- If the person is expressing their emotions and it’s coming your way, decide if now is the time to talk to them about it or if you should wait for a calmer opportunity. Either way, talk to them about it when the time is right, but do it sooner rather than later! It’s fair to express your concerns and agree on boundaries so you don’t need to take their stress and anxiety on.
- Physically separate yourself from people in a state of anxiety if you can.
- Declare a stress-free zone so that you can have your own pleasant and positive space where they can join you when they’re in the same mind-set.
- Share this post with them.
Do you have your own strategies for dealing with anxiety or for making sure you aren’t taking on someone else’s? Let us know in the comment section below!