Stress can be contagious in school, at work and in life

October 20, 2016 Providence Health Team

To the list of bugs and ailments kids and teachers pass among themselves at school, add one – stress.

That’s right: Stress is contagious. Like a head cold, lice or a yawn.

A study out of the University of British Columbia found examples of “stress contagion” as students responded to stressed-out teachers by becoming more stressed themselves. Researchers said it’s also possible that teachers become overwhelmed when confronted with a classroom full of challenging students, causing their own stress levels to rise.

“It makes sense the people around you are going to affect your functioning and your mood,” says Dr. Elizabeth Chambers, M.D., a psychiatrist who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Behavioral Health unit at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital.

Unlike studies that rely on self-reporting of stress, the Canadian study used biological samples to detect stress levels. Researchers took saliva samples and measured the level of cortisol, which is an indicator of stress.

Students had higher levels of cortisol when they were in classrooms led by teachers who said they were burned out or felt emotionally exhausted.

“It is unknown what came first – elevated cortisol or teacher burnout,” says Eva Oberle, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. “We consider the connection between student and teacher stress a cyclical problem in the classroom.”

Implications of the study

“I think it’s pretty interesting to talk about this burnout cascade,” says Dr. Chambers. “Teachers are struggling because they’re tired and probably overworked and not getting the support they really need.

“And the kids are picking up on that, so they’re having more behavioral problems, concentration problems and difficulties getting along. Maybe they’re stressed and anxious, too. How’s the teacher treating them? Is she going to be more strict?  Is she not caring? All that’s going to affect the kid.”

Dr. Chambers, who has been with Providence for 16 years, has a practice that consists of adults, and children and adolescents. Many of her clients are kids brought by their parents or referred by counselors or other specialists. She says many of the children show evidence of stress, even if they don’t clearly articulate it. They may cite physical complaints about headaches or stomachaches, for example, or their grades may suffer.

In general, “some kids are just experiencing more difficult issues,” she says, mentioning family disruptions, financial issues and, sometimes, violence.

Dealing with your stress and theirs

Contagious stress, of course, isn’t confined to the classroom.

“It’s not just this teacher-student relationship,” Dr. Chambers says. “It’s across the board.”

Behavioral health experts say parents should work to avoid passing their own stresses to their children. And Dr. Chambers encourages schools to work to make teachers feel more supported by keeping class sizes manageable, having volunteers in the classroom and making sure they’re paid adequately.

She also says students benefit when school psychologists are available and have time to spend with students.

Schools have made progress in some areas, such as responding more quickly to bullying and misuse of social media. But there is always more they could do. Dr. Chambers is an advocate of “friendship groups,” in which students collaborate to address problems. The idea that peers understand or are dealing with the same issues is powerful, she says.

Further reading

The study referred to in the post is available within the University of British Columbia media release, “Stress contagion possible amongst students and teachers: UBC study.”

You might also enjoy reading a discussion of spousal stress in a study of “The Contagion of Stress Across Multiple Roles,” published in 1989 in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Also, Wharton professor Sigal Barsade’s 2002 study “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behavior,” was published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

You can connect with Providence Behavioral Health at various locations. And you can find Dr. Chambers at her office in Hood River.

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