We often view emotions as contained within the individual, sitting privately in our own minds or in the minds of others. However, emotions felt by one group or individual have a powerful influence on the emotional states of others (psychologists call this 'affect contagion' or 'emotional contagion'). Emotions have the ability to ripple out in both constructive and destructive ways; happiness is contagious, but so is anxiety.
Think about a group of small children being overcome with excitement to the point of hysteria or one person in a group with a low mood bringing the rest of the group down. We know that yawning is contagious, even if the reasons for this are still not fully understood, we now also know that emotions are infectious.
A 2014 study found that mothers' stressful experiences are contagious to their infants and that the anxiety caused by such experiences can reciprocally influence both mother and infant, so stressful mothers have stressful babies which in turn causes more stress in mothers.
The research has interesting repercussions for many aspects of life, most notably in areas such as parenting and teaching. For example, burnout amongst teachers remains a growing problem with some reports suggesting that anything up to forty per cent of stressed teachers in the UK are leaving the profession within a year of qualifying. Those teachers who carry on in the classroom despite their failing mental health become less effective at their job and are a more likely to display negative behaviours such as fatigue, negativity and irritability.
But it turns out that these teachers are actually passing their stress and anxiety onto their students.
A recent study has found that teachers suffering from occupational burnout tend to have students who suffer from high levels of anxiety, indicating that teacher and student stress are linked. This new study is interesting because instead of using self-completion questionnaires to measure levels of anxiety in students, it used biological markers, namely the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In studies of pre-school children, high levels of cortisol have been found during increased levels of teacher-pupil conflict while lower levels of conflict predict a decrease in cortisol. Similarly, less academically successful teenagers who displayed poor behaviour have been found to have higher concentrations of cortisol; they're actually more stressed.
It's a similar picture in children excluded from their friendship groups and teenagers who have been victims of bullying. So we can confidently conclude that cortisol is a good indication that we're suffering from stress.
In the most recent study those teachers who scored highly on measures of burnout tended to have students with higher levels of cortisol in their saliva, in other words, stressed out teachers have stressed out students. Much of the anxiety we see in young people could well have originated in others and then 'spread' like a virus.
Adults are better at identifying and tacking stress than children and teenagers, so it's worth talking through anxieties with young people. The existence of stress contagion should also motivate parents and those who work closely with young people to become more aware of their own emotional states. Tackling our own levels of stress (and those of our employees) reduce the risk of those around us suffering from the same symptoms.
On the brighter side, affect contagion also suggests that your positive mood can make those around you more positive.
A longer version of this article, with tips on how to cope with stress, can be found at www.marcsmith.biz