Ever wondered why being around stressed people stresses you out too? It’s well documented that stress is contagious. Being around stressed colleagues or partners is a sure fire way to raise your own blood pressure. But why does this happen?
Apparently, it’s all got to do with your vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
According to Healthline.com, the word vagus means “wondering”. This is appropriate, as the vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It runs all the way from your brain stem to your colon. Naturally, its in charge of a lot of important functions – not least of which how we feel just about all the time.
In the words of Jessica Maguire at Women’s Health, “the vagus nerve changes how anxious we feel, how fast our heart beats, our digestion, our immune and endocrine (hormonal) systems and it changes how we relate to other people”.
This “social engagement system”, she writes, is formed by the way the vagus nerve connects the heart to the muscles in your face.
“It controls how we look, listen and how we speak, depending on our level of stress activation. Another person’s voice, gaze, expression and gestures all influence us, and we influence them, creating a feedback loop”.
So how is stress contagious?
When operating in our social engagement system, reciprocity and empathy are high. We’re better communicators – taking turns, listening, mirroring the energy of whoever we’re talking to in a calm and comfortable way. We’re more likely to understand another’s point of view which, automatically, makes us more likeable and puts them at ease.
When we’re experiencing stress, however, we’re operating quite differently. Maguire writes that when someone is experiencing high levels of stress activation, they move outside of their social engagement system, and into the sympathetic nervous system state. This causes their vagus nerve to be inhibited.
“The muscles to do with speech change and so their voice becomes monotone,” she writes”. “There’s a loss of the expression in their face when they communicate and this can signal to the survival part of our brain that something’s wrong”.
“Their gestures and body language excite the mirror neurons in the resonance circuits of our brain and signals are sent down into our body that make us feel anxious, reactive or that we need to move away from this person. We lose the feelings of calm and ease because the vagal brake is inhibited, our heart rate increases, and cortisol is released. We move from connection to protection”.
It makes sense as a survival mechanism that if someone is behaving as if they’re under threat, we should feel alert to same thing. So our brains start to mirror what they’re doing as they exhibit signs of stress. Except in our world today, the threats are far less likely to be physical than mental – or financial, emotional, etc.
When under threat, real or imaginary, people tend to do some weird things. We might lash out at loved ones, or freeze them out. It’s not until later, when we’re back in our social engagement system, that we can see things clearly again.
Why is this important?
Knowing that stress in contagious can help us control how we behave when we switch to the sympathetic nervous system state. We can be more conscious of how our behaviour and tone changes, and how it affects those around us. We can better understand that feedback loop. According to Maguire, we can also use this knowledge to strengthen relationships.
“Healthy relationships with high reciprocity help reshape the nervous system: this is like doing bicep curls for your vagus nerve”, she says. “The back and forth of communication and the giving and receiving of care both build connection and coregulation that shapes your nervous system so you feel a sense safety and belonging when you’re having a difficult time.”
So, next time someone’s stressing you out, pause for thought. How is their stress impacting you, and is their perceived threat really a threat at all? Maintaining a calm state will help you stay empathetic enough to help them. Not only that, but your state of calm might help bring them back down too.