Can someone catch anxiety from another person? Will it spread through a group of people? Will one anxious person “infect” others with anxious thoughts and worry? The answers to these questions are… yes and no. Yes, it is possible to feel increased nervousness and worry when around an anxious person but no, it will not likely cause a person to develop an anxiety disorder. In a world full of anxiety, worry, challenges, and changes, it is difficult NOT to worry, and when other people are worried as well, it can be easy to get caught up in anxious thoughts.
What Is Anxiety?
Most people have heard of, and many have even experienced, anxiety at some point in their life. Feeling anxious is a normal human experience that happens as a result of the body triggering the stress response within the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system alerts the brain to a threat and activates the body to be prepared to fight or run away (fight-flight response). This is an important system used to protect the body from danger.
While most people feel anxiety at some point in their life, generalized anxiety disorder is more than simply worrying or feeling nervous in new or challenging situations. Generalized anxiety disorder is when your symptoms become too difficult to control, last longer than six months, and interfere with your daily life. Here are some of the symptoms for generalized anxiety disorder based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM5):
- Restlessness or feeling on edge
- Easily fatigued
- Difficult concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
It is important to distinguish between stress, anxiety, and anxiety disorders. Stress is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat. Anxiety is the reaction to stress and may or may not continue when the threat has passed. It is a normal human reaction to worry about things such as bills, personal relationships, and stressful or embarrassing situations.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental health condition which impacts functioning and creates clinically significant distress for the person. Stress and anxiety are unpleasant for anyone, but for those without anxiety disorder, it is tolerable, manageable, and does not occur nearly every day for months or years, as it does for a person with an anxiety disorder.
Is It Contagious?
When you think about a contagious disease, a cold or the flu often come to mind. Anxiety, of course, is not a germ. However, contagious can also be defined as: “exciting similar emotions or conduct in others.” The question then remains: can one anxious person excite anxious emotions in others?
Anxious emotions cannot be “caught” from another person but if you are around someone with anxiety, you may feel yourself becoming increasingly anxious. For example, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, people started panic-buying various items, such as cleaning supplies, food, and toilet paper in amounts they did not need. Why? It was likely because they saw other people panic buying and became worried that they wouldn’t have access to these supplies either. Such behavior demonstrates how anxious thoughts and behaviors can spread among a group of people.
Why We Feel What Others Feel
Several studies have indicated that emotions are contagious among friends and others in close proximity. It is possible to experience emotions as a result of other people’s emotional responses.
For example, if someone is really excited about a new job, a friend may feel more excited, happy, or giggly as a result of the other person’s happiness. The friend may have no reason to be so excited, but they feel the emotion in their body and feel increased happy sensations. This is also the case for anxiety.
When someone is anxious, others around them may also feel more anxious. Why is that? The answer can be found in human biology. The body is designed to alert you when there is a threat, activating the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the stress response.
The stress response may trigger anxiety and worry. When a person is anxious, the body’s response may include shallow breathing, narrowed vision, increased heart rate, and posture change while searching for the threat. A person nearby may consciously or unconsciously become aware of the changes and begin to search for the threat, thus activating their own stress response. As social creatures, humans survive danger in groups. In order to protect oneself and the group, the body’s nervous system reads others’ responses to locate the undetected threat.
Simply put, when others are feeling anxious, the body notices there must be a reason to be alarmed and increases the stress response to account for the threat as well. This is great if there is a threat! If a dangerous animal runs toward a group of people, a terrified look from one person will likely trigger the whole group to turn and be ready to fight or run away.
The problem is when there is no visible threat, and your body experiences stress solely in response to another person’s anxiety. In such a situation, it’s challenging to control the stress response because you don’t see the danger or know how to defend yourself against it.
Some people will find they are more sensitive when around others with anxiety while others might not notice any changes. So yes, it is possible to feel increased anxiety when you spend time with a person with anxiety but no, an anxiety disorder is unlikely to occur as a result.