Have you ever felt stress in the air when you walked into work? Have you ever felt anxious after spending time with a worried friend? Those who believe everything is made up of energy understand that we can absorb the energy around us. But now science may be backing up this theory.
Calling it “secondhand stress,” Mark Fenske, co-author of “The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success,” and associate professor in neuroscience at the University of Guelph wrote an article in The Globe and Mail offering possible explanations backed by science on the contagious nature of both negative and positive emotions.
A recently discovered class of brain cells called “mirror neurons” are thought to “reflect
the actions and feelings of others,” said Fenske in the article. First discovered in monkeys, he said there is growing evidence behind the theory that the human brain has a similar system.
“Why do we cringe when we see someone else get hurt? Because we mentally simulate the event as if it were happening to us,” he said, explaining studies have shown the pain we feel for others when they get hurt activates the same regions in our brain when we get hurt ourselves.
Another theory is that stress leads to the release of pheromones during perspiration, which can “unconsciously impact brain activity and behaviour when inhaled by others,” said Fenske. Brain scans have actually shown that inhaling stress-produced sweat is enough to increase activation within the amygdala, an emotion-related region of the brain, he explained.
The amygdala is also activated from anxiety and is thought to help us respond to potential dangers, he said. “Scalp-based measures of electrical activity suggest that, compared to
exercise-produced sweat, inhaling a stressed-person’s sweat can cause the brain to increasingly treat others as potential threats, even if their facial expressions suggest they are actually harmless.”
However, the good news is, we can also benefit from positive emotions of others, he said. “Smiling and laughter, for example, are well known for their infectious nature. Acts of kindness, concern and patience for those having a bad day can likewise help to stem an epidemic of stress.”
So the next time you find yourself stressed or anxious and can’t figure out why – take a look at the environment or people around you to see if you might be reacting to them!