Stress Contagion and Physiological Synchrony

The experience of stress is most often conceived of as an individual level process -- a person experiences a threatening or aversive stimulus and they respond to that stimulus. But this conception of stress does not account for the intricately social lives of humans and other animals.

Indeed, stress can emanate from individuals and influence those around them. Stress contagion, and its close cousin emotion contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson, 1994), is an area of inquiry that takes seriously the idea that intrapersonal affective experiences can influence others in our social network, and people can "catch" the stress of others (Palumbo, et al., 2016). Most work on this topic has focused on dyads within close relationships -- for example, married couples, mothers and babies, close friends -- but strangers can catch affective experiences of each other as well. Researchers have used a variety of approaches with the goal of detecting stress contagion using measures that are non-obtrusive and continuous. Peripheral autonomic physiology, responses like heart rate, heart rate variability, pre-ejection period, and blood pressure, are most commonly used, though hormones and neural activation have also been used as well. One of the primary challenges in this work is how to measure and analyze data to understand stress contagion. In a paper by Thorson, West, & Mendes (2018) they outline some statistical approaches on how to analyze continuous dyadic physiological data. 


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Overview prepared by Wendy Berry Mendes and Tessa West. The linked resources are published in peer-reviewed journals. Please direct suggestions and feedback to

Version date March 27, 2020.