Contagious Stress

Contagious Stress

Stress is no stranger to parents of children with special needs; but did you know that new research shows stress is contagious?

When anyone observes stress in another person, their body releases the stress hormone cortisol. While this empathic stress response is greater when we have a relationship with the other person, it occurs even in response to observing the stress of strangers. This is an amazing discovery from a research standpoint, but one that makes perfect sense when we examine how human beings relate to one another.

Working with families of children with special needs has proven to me that stress responses can start with one person and impact others in the family. There is a vicious cycle that often starts with the child becoming stressed out, and cascades to parents and other family members. It is generally the case that when a child is getting upset or dysregulated, the parent (or other caretaker) gets stressed and dysregulated in response.

This new research sheds light on why this is so challenging: The parent’s body is releasing cortisol in response to seeing the child stressed and upset. One of the first things we teach parents at our clinic is to become aware of their stress responses in relation to what the child is doing. When adults can become aware of their physiological response to stress, it becomes possible to implement strategies that reduce the stress for the parent and child — especially during those moments managing challenging behaviors.

Now, this research also shows us that a mirrored stress response can work in the other direction as well.

Parents who are often stressed and upset can cause children to become stressed in response. As adults, we need to be aware of the impact our stress can have on our children. Using stress-reduction strategies is important not just for our own physical and mental health, but for the health of our children as well.

One additional implication of this research is that the things we are exposed to via television, internet and other media has an impact on our stress level.

The authors of the study found that “even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers.” Watching news programs, television shows, and movies that portray human beings in negative circumstances or stressful situations increases our stress levels. This can also happen when we immerse ourselves in online content (even via social media) that exposes us to the stress of others. All the more reason for parents to be very cautious about what children are exposed to in the media, as they can experience increased stress as a result.


Engert, V., Plessow, F., Miller, R., Kirschbaum, C., & Singer, T. (2014). Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by social closeness and observation modality. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Retrieved from this article.

What You Should Do Next:

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