No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself — Virginia Woolf
Stress and anxiety are intimately related, but distinctly different in two diverse ways, one is emotional, and the other is biological. Working together with one tripping the other, however, is a concerted attack against your physical health and your mental health. Of most concern is that it can kill brain cells and shrink the size of the brain. It’s power, therefore, is formidable.
Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.
Stress and anxiety work in concert. First, the person may perceive a psychological threat, and then the biological stress reaction is put in action. As Hans Selye indicated, there is a General Adaptation Syndrome that follows a designated path. Selye’s syndrome is comprised of three stages; alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Tragically, the final stage of exhaustion can be death.
Stress is, thus, defined as a state of threatened homeostasis, which is reestablished by a complex repertoire of physiologic and behavioral adaptive responses of the organism.
I had my first experience with contagious anxiety in third grade. I was seated quietly waiting for a test paper to be passed around. I wasn’t concerned because I knew I had studied when, suddenly, the first seated in front of me whirled around and, in a very frightened voice asked, “Are you afraid? Do you think you’ll be able to pass the test?”
The thought had never entered my mind, but suddenly my heart began to race wildly and I felt myself shiver at the thought of taking a test. No, I never had test-taking anxiety before. I always remained calm until that day. She shook me to the core.
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.
People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.
Much is written about managing stress without addressing the environmental, physical, and biological substrates in any detail. Stated more directly, The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as merely “the brain’s response to any demand.”
Failure to Manage Stress
The dynamic pairing of stress and anxiety does require management. If prolonged stress is not managed, physical health may be the deadly target and psychological and physical illness results. Physical illnesses include hypertension, sleep disorders, and immune system dysfunction. But how does each work?
Studies have shown that there is a clear relationship between anxiety, stress, and early childhood experiences. Therefore, a predisposition to heightened levels of stress and anxiety can be assumed, and, theoretically, a primed network in the brain to respond is developed. The brain changes are especially true in the “fear center,” the amygdala, which increases in size with heightened stress and anxiety.
One of the most apparent biological markers of increased stress is easily demonstrated; salivary cortisol (the stress hormone). A bright note is that the brain change process appears to be lifelong and mitigates for remediation of stress and anxiety.
Brain development is a continuous process throughout life that goes through sensitive periods during which stressors and nurturing experiences can have lasting effects. Many adult diseases such as cardiovascular disease and depression have their origins in adverse early-life experiences, such as neglect and physical and sexual abuse, as was shown in the Centers for Disease Control Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.
Changing the Brain in the Face of Anxiety
Deleterious brain changes in adulthood appear to be amenable to repair according to research. But one question remains to be answered, and that is whether or not anxiety is contagious.
One researcher found that the brain retains the possibility of increasing and strengthening its network of neurons, the cells that comprise the brain and the body’s nervous system.
This work is contributing to a new understanding that the brain stays this plastic organ throughout your life, capable of change.
Therefore, the hope remains that childhood deficits in brain development tied to early emotional responses and anxiety may be overturned.
Anxiety Contagion, Real or Not?
What about anxiety having a component of contagion? Can you become more anxious if you’re in the company of anxious people or a person? It appears to be true. Behavioral or herd contagion was being studied during the 1950s.
In fact, according to one paper, “…herding may encompass a much wider range of our social behaviors than had been previously thought.”
While fear helps us survive, when mixed with uncertainty, it can lead to something quite bad for our mental health: anxiety. And when anxiety is spread by social contagion — defined as the spread of affect from one person to another — it can lead to something even more problematic: panic. Just like walking into a party and suddenly feeling like you’re in a “social mood” when you hadn’t been moments before, fear and anxiety are two emotions that spread easily from one person to another.
A contagion of this type has also been shown to be an unlearned response, as is demonstrated by babies that cry when they hear other babies crying. The fear response kicks in quickly at birth.
Emotional contagion does not arise only in dyadic or group face-to-face interactions. Several cultural artifacts are capable of transmitting emotions, such as movies, videotapes, cartoons, and songs.
Researchers have demonstrated that movies are very effective instruments for communicating emotions. Several studies have obtained evidence that Duchenne smiles (genuine smiles) appear in participants who are watching pleasant movies . The Duchenne smile is perceived as a more affective smile.
What Appears to Be Most Effective in Managing Stress/Anxiety?
Numerous exercises have been suggested as being useful in managing stress and anxiety, but the one which appears to work best is mindfulness.
The therapeutic efficacy of mindfulness has been demonstrated in outpatient pain patients and has realized its potential in multiple settings for varied difficulties. Today, the practice is available online through several hospitals and clinics.
As noted by The Lancet, mindfulness is a worthwhile program and, while useful for anxiety and stress, is not often used due to finance, time constraints, or other personal considerations.
The editors of the journal indicated its value not merely for current use, but as something that has lifelong value.
This process of paying attention to novelty and to the context of the current situation leads one to having a multiplicity of possible perspectives, reframing events in more than one way. Processing information within this framework has been shown to result in positive health-related outcomes, including increased longevity.
A study that evaluated the Mind-Op program online did find it helpful and that it addressed some of the concerns expressed in The Lancet editorial.
Online, brief, non-proprietary self-guided interventions hold great promise, given their scalability and their ability to address several of the barriers to access, most notably costs, experienced by those who need these treatments most.
Note: Although I have named an online mindfulness program concerning a specific study, this is not an endorsement, and readers should not see it that way.
Are anxiety and stress contagious? They certainly are. Can we learn to help ourselves by using techniques such as mindfulness? We sure can and we should. Health, both of the physical and mental type, is too valuable to waste.