Ever find yourself worried that if you spend time around an anxious friend or hear too much information about anxiety that you will “catch” anxiety – You will become anxious yourself, or will take on a new fear or new form of anxiety, like OCD?
Well, a big thank you to long-time subscriber, Robyn, for asking this question:
According to a recent study published in the journal of Memory and Cognition, many people believe this idea…
That you can catch anxiety disorders, anorexia, problems with alcohol, or even schizophrenia from spending time with people with these conditions.
Many of us have had the experience of spending time with someone who is visibly anxious and felt a bit anxious ourselves.
If we were around this all the time, could we end up with their issues?
It’s enough to make you wonder whether you can catch anxiety the same way you catch a cold.
Picture this, you’re at work…
Your manager is sighing… a lot! And seems in a really bad mood today…
and suddenly, you find yourself on edge, too.
Have you caught their anxiety!?
Well, no. Anxiety conditions aren’t contagious.
But STRESS is contagious.
Stress, as opposed to anxiety, comes from stressors.
We’re primed to pick up on social cues. Especially threat.
You’re not going to last very long in the wilderness if you go ignoring the person frantically gesticulating at the hippo behind you.
Those who paid quick attention survived longer.
We are social animals and our survival has depended a fair bit on our ability to read others.
We have this awesome ability with our mirror neurons to copy others’ emotions on a micro level based on their facial expressions and body language.
We literally feel what they’re feeling.
Which gives us rapid insight into their intentions, as well as enabling empathy and potentially bonding through this shared understanding.
But feeling similar stress to what your friend, or boss, is displaying doesn’t mean you now have an anxiety disorder.
That’s because mental illnesses can’t be transmitted from one person to another like the flu.
Anxiety is much more complicated than getting a cold, or feeling stressed because your best friend seems very worried this week.
The idea that you can catch anxiety from social interactions probably stems from the fact that EMOTIONS can easily spread from person to person.
But emotions are transient and are not the same as an anxiety problem that is massively disrupting someone’s life.
Anxiety is thought to be caused by a collection of things that you learned growing up, including negative experiences, and activated genes you inherited.
It’s not the kind of thing that can rub-off on you from spending time with someone else with anxiety.
Say you read an article or watch a video about OCD.
You might notice some of the symptoms they mentioned in yourself.
By putting the knowledge of these symptoms in your head, have you inadvertently given yourself OCD?
Knowledge is power.
Research shows that people can get a 60% improvement in anxiety just by learning more about how it works.
What is likely happening is an increased recognition of some of these anxiety traits in yourself that you already have.
For most people these are going to be minor.
It’s not like anxiety is something outlandish, something foreign to all of us, that only a tiny minority of humans experience.
No! We all experience at least bits and pieces of different kinds of anxiety.
You might notice a desire to have your pens in neat lines on your desk, or feel some doubt that you left the oven on.
These are normal and don’t mean you have OCD.
Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when the anxiety is really getting in the way of your life.
And they are not caused by gaining greater knowledge and understanding.
Neither, as we learned earlier, are they caused by being around people with anxiety.
What you can catch is stress, or transient emotions as your brain mirrors and empathises with their emotions.
You can engage in Compassionate detachment.
Those mirror neurons I mentioned earlier… If you need a break from mirroring some else’s emotions, then you can block these, just like you would block a mirror to prevent it reflecting light.
Imagine yourself as a detached observer.
Be attentive, kind, and respectful, but not so emotionally involved that you feel responsible for their problem.
You may like to envision something you love or that makes you feel calm.
It’s not the situation you’re in, but what’s in your head that your emotions will respond to.
This strategy also helps because you don’t pressure yourself to fix something that’s outside of your control and thus feel helpless and frustrated.
You can Set clear boundaries.
Notice when you’re going beyond your bounds.
Maybe spending more time with someone who is struggling than you are willing to.
One of the first thing you’ll notice is a feeling of resentment.
Pay attention to this and set your boundaries accordingly.
It’s telling you what your needs are.
Push it too far and you can end up doing more harm than good, with angry outbursts or passive aggressive behaviour.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
If things are very intense at one point in time, you can separate from them temporarily and spend time with them again once they’ve had a chance to think things through or talk to someone else.
It can be a good idea to Write your thoughts down.
Doing so can help you organise your thoughts and better cope with your emotions.
Once down on paper, ruminations no longer playing on an endless loop inside your head.
Or you can Talk to someone you trust.
Researchers have found that while you can pick up on someone’s stress or anxiety and feel stressed yourself, the reverse is also true.
Talking something over with someone you trust can reduce your stress and help you feel better.
And don’t worry, it’s not an endless cycle of people making each other stressed.
It bonds us and the stress fizzles out as we share, as we don’t have strong thinking patterns of our own to maintain it away from the source.
Lastly, you can make sure you have a strong Psychological health routine.
If you’re feeling quite stressed or anxious because of being around, or hearing about others’ anxiety, it’s likely that your own mental health could do with a top up.
To do that, you’ll need a healthy self-care regime.
Invest time in finding things that relax and recharge you, and which you can do routinely.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant but it does need to be purposeful and meaningful to you.
Whether it’s yoga, woodworking, or having a weekly game night with friends, find something you find fulfilling.
Then actually pursue it on a regular basis.
If you’re exposed to stress when you haven’t been taking care of yourself, you’ll find that you’re more irritable and have a lower tolerance for other’s problems.
So build up your resiliency by taking good care of yourself first.
Sharing in the emotions of those around us, while stressful, can lead to a greater sense of closeness.
So, if you’ve been worried about catching anxiety and have been keeping useful knowledge about anxiety and other people’s emotions at arm’s reach,
Work on building up your own mental health, then you can give others who are struggling a shoulder to lean on.
People living with anxiety suffer from enough stigma as it is.
Understanding anxiety, showing empathy and being there for them isn’t going to mess with your head.