Why we are also victims of other people’s stress

To a greater or lesser extent, stress is part of our lives. At first, this statement should not seem like a fact that causes concern. Although the word itself has acquired a clear negative connotation, it is a highly adaptive response that prepares the organism to react to any threat.

When we notice racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, focused attention, and sweaty hands, it’s because activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic system have primed the body for fight or flight.

The negative consequences of stress appear when it is maintained for long periods of time and alertness becomes chronic. Unfortunately, this response pattern is very common in our daily lives. The extraordinary cognitive capacity of the human being allows us to be able to anticipate and worry (even more than deal with) an infinity of possible threats.

Traditionally, the focus of research has been focused on studying the negative consequences of stress in those individuals who suffer from it. However, there are very few works that evaluate the possible stress-inducing effects in subjects who are only witnesses of the situation.

Witnesses to the suffering of others

To study this phenomenon, researchers often use tests such as the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), where the participant must perform tasks that are perceived as stressful by the majority of the population.

The volunteer has to prepare a short oral presentation in the context of a job interview. To do this, he is provided with a sheet that is then suddenly removed. Throughout this exposition, the supposed judges remain with expressionless faces. At the end, the test includes a surprise task consisting of a series of mental arithmetic exercises.

As expected, the test induces a stress response that is reflected in various physiological markers: increased heart rate, sweating, increased levels of stress hormones (cortisol), etc.

Recent research shows that when a person watches a TSST participant go through this testing odyssey, they experience a response quite similar to that of the subject taking the test. In other words, we not only suffer from our own stress, but we are also affected by what others experience.

Undoubtedly, being able to feel the suffering of others firsthand has a clear evolutionary meaning, since it can be a very advantageous strategy when it comes to learning to avoid possible dangers and behaviors that harm us. We understand much better now the popular saying that states “when you see the neighbor’s beard cut, put yours to soak”.

Mice distressed by the defeat of a fellow

Vicarious stress is not an exclusive phenomenon of the human being. Initial studies showed that when mice observe an aggressive encounter with a conspecific, they display typical freezing behaviors. Curiously, they are much more marked if the subject is socially related to them (cage mate, member of the same litter, etc).

More recent research has shown that witnessing a confrontation between two male rodents for dominance of a territory induces a complete response from the sympathetic system and the HPA axis in the witnesses. That is, the mice also suffer stress after witnessing the defeat of another mouse and experience some of its adverse effects.

Like the physically defeated males, the rodents that witnessed this social defeat present a decrease in social interaction, an increase in anxiety, depressive behaviors and suffer more intensely from the reinforcing effects of drugs such as alcohol or cocaine. It was even observed that they experienced an inflammatory profile similar to that of stressed mice.

These findings are highly relevant for the study and treatment of disorders, such as obesity, addictions, and various mental illnesses, in which stress is the greatest risk factor.

Society must understand that not only direct victims receive the negative impact of stress. War refugees, the classmates of a victim of bullying or the children of a couple in which gender violence is exercised witness very distressing situations that can have a strong impact on their psychological and emotional development.

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