The Anxiety Contagion


Hello again, dear Reader. I’m back after a brief hiatus. This week I will discuss what I call the anxiety contagion. I will be asking the question, is anxiety contagious? We typically think of contagion as pertaining to physical disease. In our current state of affairs, as we attempt to adjust our lives, I find that people vary widely in their responses to our brave new world.

Generally not being one to panic, I have often stifled my emotions and focused on the logical. However, I now find that I am feeling the effects of the fear of others. Those others I speak of range from friends, to family, to mere acquaintances. The magnitude of these negative thoughts, feelings and comments in a highly concentrated form can have a profound impact on the way we view our lives.

Is Anxiety Contagious?

To address this question, let’s review some of the literature on this topic than can perhaps shed some light on this phenomena. In fact, research indicates that some are actually more prone to anxiety than others. In the face of stress, some individuals do remain more calm. Let’s take a closer look.

The Anxiety Contagion:

According to research recently published (May 2020) in the Journal of Neuroscience, anxiety can become a trait. Some individuals will immediately and habitually respond with fear rather than remain calm in a stressful situation. This is felt to be due to serotonin transporters in the brain’s Amygdala.

As discussed previously in these writings, the Amygdala helps us process our emotions. Serotonin provides a euphoric feeling when released into the bloodstream. However, in the face of relentless stress our systems can become depleted, leaving us with serotonin levels that are much lower than normal. The result is an individual who is less equipped to deal with stress.

So we can understand that some experience more anxiety than others. But can the anxiety of others be ‘transferred’, in a sense, an anxiety contagion? Some believe this is the case.

Following the notion that some can infect others with their anxiety, researchers have posited that “mirror neurons” play a large role in our soaking up the negative energy that may surround us. Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that fire not only if we are personally involved in a stressful situation, but also if we are witness to stress. Further, the more empathetic you are the more susceptible you may be.

Other researchers have looked at “communicable” stress and attempted to quantify this notion by measuring cortisol levels. Data analysis revealed higher levels of cortisol in those reporting emotional exhaustion and a high density of stressors.

It is easy to see why an anxiety contagion could leave individuals dealing with a lot of free floating anxiety. Combine that with the presence of a real threat to our safety and livelihoods, as with COVID-19; even those who normally have cool heads can be subject to anxiety contagion. So, what do we do?

The Anxiety Contagion: Coping

As researchers have indicated, fears can be transferred to others. When enough individuals feel these fears, an anxiety contagion can develop in which free floating anxieties can invade one’s peace of mind.

Certainly scrolling through social media feeds and hearing rumors from our family or friends can increase our anxiety, but not reading could also be an error. We all have different emotional thresholds. As there are many relaxation, meditation and mindful approaches to self soothing, the onus is on us to search out and test what will work best for us. Here are a few options to consider.

Immerse Yourself in Activity:

Staying busy and productive is so important! Here are a few activities you might consider. First, active and passive activities can be used together. It’s up to the individual to tailor these activities to meet their unique needs. Here are a few ‘passive’ activities, in that these do not require excessive physical activity:

‘Passive’ Activities:
1.) Read a book
2.) Write an email, letter or card
3.) Watch a movie in bed
4.) Take brief naps
5.) Listen to music
6.) Take a luxurious bath
7.) Enjoy nature, watch a sun rise or set
8.) Sit under a shade tree and watch the clouds
9.) Listen to the wind blow or the birds singing

‘Operative’ Activities:
1.) Play with a pet
2.) Blow bubbles
3.) Sing a song or whistle a tune
4.) Play an instrument
5.) Begin something: clean a closet, plant a garden, start a hobby such as arts, crafts and creative writing, which can be daunting but worth a try. I recommend a small notebook in which you can jot down ideas or feelings you may have about any topic you choose
6.) Finish something: home projects, writing projects, or even a degree
7.) Take a walk in nature and take pleasure in quiet times
8.) Reach out for support, to friends and family via phone, text, email, social media
9.) Physical exercise: The level of one’s physical activity can have a direct impact upon mood and peace of mind. Again, physical activity must be tailored to meet your unique physicality and not a cookie cutter approach to fitness.

Get In Touch With Your Spirituality:

I believe that anytime is a good time to find your spiritual core, but especially during these times of increasing uncertainty. I feel that spiritual endeavors grow our hearts. Making me-time can be tough. Here are a few things to consider:

1.) Meditation: Many types of meditation exist for your perusal. I would suggest that some study is warranted as we are all unique. Typically the easiest types of meditation do not require concentration, and can be vocal or silent.
2.) Relaxation techniques: As with meditation, there are many types of relaxation techniques available. Some focus upon visualization while others focus on the relaxation of each body part. Do what is easiest for you.
3.) Yoga: I present this as separate from meditation techniques, relaxation techniques and physical exercise as I feel it provides another avenue by which doorways to peace can be opened. Begin slowly with basic stretching yoga postures, and don’t overdo…I advise gentle, slow stretching.
4.) Breathe: This is something I remind myself to do almost every day. When we feel anxious, oftentimes we tend to hold our breath or to breathe shallowly. I’ve previously mentioned the 4/7/9 technique as soothing. You simply breathe in through you’re nose to a count of 4, hold that breath to a count of 7, then exhale through the mouth to a count of 9. To four repetitions. I do this daily! It helps me immensely.
5.) Reflect on the positives: make a list of these and add to it daily; find the gratitude within.
6.) Have a good laugh! We discussed the importance of smiling on a biological level. We take that up a notch when we laugh; as endorphins are released into our bloodstreams we feel good.


The anxiety contagion is a very real phenomena that can occur when nervous energy is transferred to others. This anxiety merges with our own fears, and we often don’t even think of untangling these feelings. Luckily, we do not have to take a cognitive approach and look rationally at our fears. Remedies exist for anxiety as outlined above. However, we must always search and choose the simplest, easiest path to relaxation as individuals.

It is good to be back at DWW writing again. We all need some down time, especially during times of intense stress. As always, please feel free to leave comments and/or questions at the end of this article to ‘join the discussion’. I typically post by 3 pm on Sundays, but I check throughout the week to look for your thoughts. Until next week, Dear Reader, please stay safe and healthy!



Dr. Shanni Dover
I am Dr. Shanni Dover and I am honored to be here. I am a retired Ph.D. psychologist, and I worked in public and private schools for 26 years, both in Illinois and Arizona. I currently spend my days as a novice painter and poet, near a mountain range with my dogs as my alarm clock.
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Shirley Satterfield(@shirleymandelsatterfield) (@shirleymandelsatterfield)
1 year ago

We are much like farm animals in that when there is a real danger present, we often respond as through we are all one person and rush out to buy up all the toilet paper. It’s funny how people will respond when they are afraid. We are all more tightly connected as one human race more than we could ever suspect, American individualism notwithstanding. Fascinating article.

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