Is Anxiety Contagious?

Two issues need to be clarified before we can answer the question “Is Anxiety Contagious?” 1. It is important to understand panic attacks, anxiety, depression and other mental health terminology correctly, not to rely on rumors, misconceptions or misinterpretations about those psychological terms. They signify very different problems with very different causes and results. 2. People unaware of the realities can exaggerate or underestimate the issues and heartaches involved.

When magazines and websites feed the flames of passion (and BIGGER sales!) with click bait questions about mental and emotional health, you don’t need to be tricked into believing that You Must Read The Article or Take the Survey to find out if a given problem is more common than you once believed. Nor do you need to assume that It’s TRUE! Manipulating the public is not a scientific proof of very much.

Anxiety sells headlines and lots of medication, however, so let’s get our heads straight by reviewing facts rather than by relying on fiction. The Current DSM-5 Definition of anxiety in the newest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (an industry classic) reads as follows (some text has been bolded for better focus):

  1.  A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.
  2.  Exposure to the feared situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally pre-disposed Panic Attack.  
  3.  The person recognizes that this fear is unreasonable or excessive.
  4.  The feared situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety and distress.
  5.  The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.
  6.  The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting 6 or more months.
  7. The fear or avoidance is not due to direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., drugs, medications) or a general medical condition not better accounted for by another mental disorder…

Copyright 2013, The American Psychiatric Association

Now that you have the definitions straight, let’s study some information about anxiety and how catching, or how uncatchable, it might be.

On January 12th 2017, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health announced that “IN TEENS, STRONG FRIENDSHIPS MAY MITIGATE DEPRESSION ASSOCIATED WITH EXCESSIVE VIDEO GAMING”. The gist of the study and press release is that “… boys with high-quality friendships appear immune from the depression associated with heavy use of video games…” The issue of contagious anxiety is nullified by those alliances. Without the bonds of friendships, anxiety spreads among video-gaming teens.

A December 1st 2016 press release by JHU indicated, among other things, that “A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms,” says Griffiths. “People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death.” This tells us that people with cancer tend to share the same patterns of emotional misery. What the study doesn’t reveal is whether or not those emotions spread from person to person or if they’re simply inevitable due to the medical situation. The use of a hallucinogen in the study further obscures the contagion or non-contagion issue of cancer-induced stress.

Psychology Today published an article entitled Don’t Panic! Stress is Contagious. The upshot of the piece is that “that (classroom) stress contagion might be taking place” but too many variables prevented researchers from knowing that with certainty.

This July 2016 Researchers Identify Brain Circuits that help People to Cope with Stress report from the National Institutes of Health explains some of the differences between resilient and maladaptive people. It does not even hint at anxiety contagion among addicts, non-addicts or other populations included in the study.

A 2011 Scientific American We’re in This Together: When Anxiety Becomes Contagious article indicates that rodents, not humans, share their rising levels of anxiety with each other. Re-read the second cautionary statement in the first paragraph of this e-counseling article. You’ll understand it better now.

Forbes Magazine cited the authoritative voice of the American Psychological Association by naming the Eight Anxiety-Producing Poor Habits of Millennials. According to the article, the solution to the stress contagion among 21st-century inhabitants is to simply follow sensible guidelines for inner and outer health. Competitive mindsets and lackadaisical behaviors tend to drive people nuts. If everybody in your environment behaves that way, you could wonder if anxiety is contagious. But you’d have confused the issue with lifestyle choices.

Oxford University examined Is Suicide Contagious? and researchers learned a lot about the topic. Click the relevant link and read the Results and Discussion sections carefully, several times, to comprehend those complicated findings.

Conclusion: You don’t need to fall for every frightening headline or rumor. As for knowing if anxiety is contagious or not, far more impeccable data is necessary to prove the point on way or the other.

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Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani is a popular writer whose byline has appeared worldwide in print and online. Originally from Michigan, USA and based in Beer Sheva, Israel, she speaks fluent American English and Hebrew. Yocheved’s doctor-recommended self-help book EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge helps readers worldwide to build inner strengths and to overcome setbacks. A certified Health Information Management professional, she is a member of Get Help Israel. Certified in Spiritual Chaplaincy (End of Life issues) and in counseling skills, her life coaching for ill people puts healthy perspective into a clients’ success plan for achieving desired goals. Yocheved has been a featured speaker at a Nefesh Israel mental health professional’s convention and in other forums.
Yocheved Golani

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