Merely observing another person in a stressful situation – even on television – can be enough to make our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, causing us to be stressed ourselves, a team of German scientists has found.
The study was conducted by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and Technische Universitat in Dresden, Germany.
Stressful situations were observed through a one-way mirror, but in some cases, even looking at a stressed stranger on a video was enough to put some people on edge. The research notes that in a society where stress is everywhere, emphatic stress is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored.
Stress can affect a general environment in a psychologically 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,” said Veronika Engert, one of the main authors of the study. “There must be a transmission mechanism via which the target’s state can elicit a similar state in the observer down to the level of a hormonal stress response.”
During the test, subjects were asked to complete difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews while two behavioral analysts watched their performance. Only five percent of the directly stressed subjects were able to stay calm.
Twenty-six percent of observers – who were not directly exposed to the stress – also showed a significant increase in cortisol.
While observers watched stressful events through the one-way mirror, 30 percent of them experienced a stress response. Even when watching virtually, through a video link, cortisol levels rose in 24 percent of observers.
“A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course. When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol. However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good,” explained Engert.
Anyone who is confronted with the sustained suffering and stress of another person is likely to have a higher risk of being affected themselves.
The research also dispelled a common myth that women are more empathic than men, finding that men and women experience emphatic stress with equal frequency. The study found that empathic stress arose the most when the observer and the stressed individual were in a couple relationship.