Engert, V., Plessow, F., Miller, R., Kirschbaum, C., & Singer, T. Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by social closeness and observation modality. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 17 April 2014.
“Stress is contagious. Observing another person in a stressful situation can be enough to make our own bodies release the stress hormone cortisol. This is the conclusion reached by scientists involved in a large-scale cooperation project between the departments of Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and Clemens Kirschbaum at the Technische Universität Dresden. Empathic stress arose primarily when the observer and stressed individual were partners in a couple relationship and the stressful situation could be directly observed through a one-way mirror. However, even the observation of stressed strangers via video transmission was enough to put some people on red alert. In our stress-ridden society, empathic stress is a phenomenon that should not be ignored by the health care system. Stress is a major health threat in today’s society. It causes a range of psychological problems like burnout, depression and anxiety. Even those who lead relatively relaxed lives constantly come into contact with stressed individuals. Whether at work or on television: someone is always experiencing stress, and this stress can affect the general environment in a physiologically quantifiable way through increased concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. “The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” says Veronika Engert, one of the study’s first authors. This is particularly true considering that many studies experience difficulties to induce firsthand stress to begin with. The authors found that empathic stress reactions could be independent of (“vicarious stress”) or proportional to (“stress resonance”) the stress reactions of the actively stressed individuals. “…Anyone who is confronted with the suffering and stress of another person, particularly when sustained, has a higher risk of being affected by it themselves. The results of the study also debunked a common prejudice: men and women actually experience empathic stress reactions with equal frequency…”