Attention High infectionrisk

Let’s be honest, it makes us a little nervous – this new danger of infection with the coronavirus, which is getting closer and closer. This week it has reached our doorstep There are press conferences, the “Task-Force Infectiology” is working at full speed and maybe you have already checked your own condition in those days and recapitulated in your mind which persons you had direct contact with (and if they had anything to do with China…).

Somewhere between sensationalism, a diffuse uneasy feeling in the stomach and the headline that mouthguards are sold out in German pharmacies, one can wonderfully observe how authorities try to appear calm, sovereign and relaxed to avoid any impression of tension or stress. Why?

The answer is quite clear They know intuitively that tension and stress are contagious and that people in stress and anxiety do panic more easily which is not good neither for us nor for them.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Stress is contagious

Observing another person in a stressful situation can be enough for your own body to release the stress hormone cortisol (see Engert et al. 2014). This form of stress is called empathic stress and occurs particularly often when observers are in a close relationship with the stressed person, for instance in a couple. But even seeing strangers only on a screen can already put us on alert — that means emotional attachment is not a necessary prerequisite for empathic stress, only makes it more likely. In fact, this means that even television programs which show the suffering of others can cause us stress; not to mention nervous metropolitans in the subway and stressed colleagues who rush past us in the corridors. Even somebody who leads a relatively relaxed life, is in permanent contact with stressed people. Whether at work or on television: Someone is always under stress, and can infect his surroundings – not only emotionally, but also physically measurable as an increased concentration of the stress hormone cortisol. In this context it is interesting to note that from a scientific perspective there is no truth in a common prejudice: men and women react with equal frequency to empathic stress. Indeed, in their self-perception, women consider themselves to be more empathic than men, but this has not yet been demonstrated in any study using objective biological markers.

No gender differences: men and women react equally often with empathic stress

This empathically caused stress should not be neglected in our stress-dominated society. It increases the individual stress level and thus reinforces the negative, health-damaging consequences of stress. Stress is one of the most important causes of illness today, far ahead of any coronavirus, SARS or bird flu – also because it causes physical and psychological problems.

How do I protect myself and my fellow human beings from stress contagion?

It is clear that in our normal life we cannot totally keep away from stress and cannot avoid every stressful influence from our environment or other people. But we can better protect ourselves from many stress influences by first becoming aware of them and then finding ways how to deal with them differently. It can also help to find a compensation for those stressful environmental influences which cannot be avoided.

A good way to get a clearer picture of how stress arises is to keep a stress diary. Ideally in this you note down every evening for at least 1 week each stressor or stress situation you have experienced with the following questions:

  • When and where was the stress situation, what exactly caused the stress?
  • What did I feel in this sitation?
  • What did I think in this situation?
  • What did Ido in this situation?

From this stress diary you can often gain more insight into what the causes of stress and their typical stress patterns are and then make specific changes. And then in the future you can infect the whole world in all situations with your good mood…

By the way, if you want to learn more about how to better manage stress and protect yourself from it, you will find many helpful and scientifically based techniques in our online stress course. Here is the link to the course


  • 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.
  • Brauchle, M., Brauchle, G. (20143): Achtung Ansteckungsgefahr.(Attention – risk of infection) Im OP 2013; 3(01): 21-24