Secondhand Stress is Real, and It Can Alter Your Brain
Have you ever met up with a friend who just had a stressful day, and then soon started to feel jittery, yourself too?
This ‘secondhand stress’ is not just imagined; a recent study suggests that a companion’s stress may invoke similar changes to a partner’s brain, even if that partner wasn’t even exposed to stress initially.
Like many Americans, as much as you may have come to accept the inevitability of getting older, you probably don’t like noticing signs of aging such as wrinkles, vision loss, aching joints, fatigue and more.
But what most people — doctors included — don’t realize is these seemingly innocuous symptoms stem from a simple hidden cause that can easily be corrected.
Study Finds Someone Else’s Stress Can Affect Your Brain Chemistry
Led by Jaideep Bains, PhD, a team of researchers at the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), at the University of Calgary, studied this concept using pairs of mice. The researchers removed one mouse from each male-female pairing and exposed it to mild stress, then returned it to its partner. Soon after their reunion, they studied the response of CRH neurons, which control the brain’s stress response. Both the mouse that actually experienced the stress, as well as its partner, showed identical CRH neuron changes.
Next, the team used optogenetics (the use of light) to turn the CRH neurons on or off. Turning off the neurons during stress prevented the normal post-stress changes in the mouse’s brain. It also prevented stress from transferring to the mouse’s partner. But when researchers activated these neurons in one mouse, again the change was exhibited in both brains in the pair.
The team concluded that the CRH neurons cause the release of an ‘alarm pheromone,’ which the mice use to alert others of the danger or stress. The team also observed that the residual effects of stress on CRH neurons were reduced by almost half when females spent time with unstressed partners, but this same reaction did not occur in males. Bains suggests that these findings may also be present in humans.
So next time your friend has a stressful day, perhaps first suggest doing a physical activity together — taking a walk or hitting up a yoga class — before you try to settle in for a relaxing evening.
Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer, published in numerous national and local outlets. An avid vegetarian, animal lover and reader, she loves learning about healthy eating and finding natural cures for everyday ailments.