Oh crap. It’s the sneezes and sniffles. You know what that means: You’ve caught the cold. The common cold that’s as contagious as yawning, the flu and stress.

Yes, stress. Oh wait … you didn’t know stress is contagious? You bet your sweet hiney it is, and I have lots of science to back that up.

Stress is contagious

Think about that time you were listening to a co-worker panic about a deadline. She was anxious, agitated and burned out.

Did you notice your mood change when she was done venting? You may have felt stressed out yourself just by hearing her panic.

Like a yawn can circulate around the room, so can stress.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden studied subjects watching others — even strangers — in a stressful situation.

They learned an individual’s cortisol levels can start to rise just by watching a TV program of someone in a stressful situation.

The researchers call it “stress empathy” and it means secondhand stress is a real experience in our everyday lives.

Catch a case of the smiles

You know what’s great about stress empathy? The reverse is true.

Much of our behaviour is based in emotional triggers that bombard us daily — positive and negative. Often, we don’t even notice them. We absorb them subconsciously and they eat away at our coping mechanisms.

A 2009 study showed that smelling chemicals produced by sweat that results from stressful situations can have an adverse effect on your stress levels. The alarm pheromones secreted by someone can subconsciously trigger the fear centre in your brain — the amygdala — even when you have no reason to be afraid.

Think about it … when you were a kid and your brother was getting yelled at, your brain and body responded. And not just because you might have been his accomplice and you’re waiting your turn to get yelled at.

No, your brain was sensing his fear.

It’s similar when we’re adults and someone at the office is having a bad day.

You feel it, too.

As humans our empathic and sympathetic nervous systems are always engaged.

Luckily, many of us have that one friend who effortlessly lifts our spirits when we’re having a bad day. Her positivity radiates and we find ourselves catching a case of the smiles.

All of a sudden, life doesn’t feel so bad.

Nothing to fear

Stress is a natural phenomenon. To a certain degree, it’s good for you.

However, if you’re always feeling high negative stress, you have to pay attention to its effects on your brain, your body and your life.

If second-hand stress is triggering psychological problems like burnout, depression and anxiety, it may be a good idea to minimize the source.

At the workplace, you can take simple steps to de-stress your zone:

  • Talk it out
  • Walk it out

The simple act of moving around the office, or going outside for a walk and some fresh air, can lower your stress levels significantly.

It’s also OK to tell a co-worker what you’re feeling. Communicate your needs and maybe your co-worker can help you overcome whatever obstacle is in your path.

If you’re in middle management, try talking to someone higher up on the corporate ladder.

It’s important to address the issues causing your stress so you don’t become a toxic force in the office. Even one toxic person in the office can bring down the whole team.

Don’t bottle it up

If you’d rather keep your stress to yourself, that’s OK, but you must find healthy ways to decompress.

Often, people decompress by enjoying a few after-work cocktails. Sure, this can work but it’s only temporary relief. As your stress increases, so will the amount of decompression needed, and possibly the amount of alcohol consumed.

That’s never good.

Instead, find ways to unwind that give you a physical or mental release without relying on a substance (which can even be eating or watching too much TV).


  • Going for a walk
  • Listening to your favourite music
  • Reading a good book

Look for an activity that lets you shift gears. Some people I know go really nuts and train for a marathon.

If you’ve hit the stage where nothing seems to be working, you may want to consider seeking professional help. It doesn’t have to be as drastic as a psychiatrist or psychologist. It can be someone like me, who can help you manage your stress and strategize ways to enjoy life.

We are responsible for our own stress responses.

Remember to separate yourself from someone else’s stress, so you don’t catch the “office cold.”

And check your stress on a regular basis because it does affect others.

Remember to stress responsibly.

You can’t control other people, but you can control yourself.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

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