When you’re in a relationship, it’s no secret that you share the highs and the lows. You feel elated when your partner is happy, and you can feel completely destroyed when you see them in pain. But it’s actually a more complicated phenomenon than just picking up on and feeding off of someone else's emotions; sometimes, we actually internalize those emotions and can start to feel them ourselves. Because the truth is, emotions are contagious.
The bad news? Some emotions catch easier than others—and anxiety and stress can catch like wildfire. If you find yourself feeling stressed and anxious when your partner is stressed, you’re not alone—and it’s not in your imagination. There’s actually a lot of science behind it. Here's why you get anxious when your partner is anxious.
The Power of Anxiety Contagion
You might worry about catching your partner's flu or cold, but you probably don't think of yourself as catching anxiety. But when you start thinking about emotions as being contagious, it makes a lot of sense. Elaine Hatfield, a social psychologist at the University of Hawaii, has done a lot of research into relationship science and emotion consignation. In a relationship, it's actually really easy to see why we pick up on each other’s emotions.
“In conversation, people automatically and continuously mimic and synchronize their movements with the facial expressions, voices, postures, movements, and instrumental behaviors of others,” Hatfield explains. “Consequently, people tend, from moment to moment, to ‘catch’ others’ emotions.” And though those emotions can be happy ones—one study found that a friend’s good mood has been proven to boost our mood by 25 percent—it’s the more unpleasant emotions that tend to transfer. “We catch happiness, but sadness, anger, and fear are a lot more contagious,” she says. So when your partner is unhappy at work or stressed with family issues, there’s a good chance you’ll start to feel it.
In fact, research has shown that we can smell the difference between sweat that results from stress and sweat that results from physical activity. There are so many different ways that the body manifests stress before you even take into consideration the way your partner is acting or speaking. It’s no wonder that we start to absorb and mimic some of their anxieties.
A Gendered Issue?
One thing that the research hasn’t looked into, but many of us have experienced anecdotally, is that women often seem to pick up on anxiety and stress in the people around them more than men do. This isn't because men are intrinsically more obvious, it's because we, as a society, put specific pressure on women. “Women are often socialized to be caretakers, so in a way, we sometimes feel like their stress or problems are actually our responsibility to solve,” relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells Brides. “So if this is the case, in a way their stress actually is our stress.”
It may not be true for all women, but many of us feel the pressure to help people, especially men, deal with and process their anxiety—even when the situation is far beyond our control. And we simply don't put the same expectations on men. The social burden that women feel to be emotional caretakers, mixed with the power of emotional contagion can make it really easy for your partner’s anxiety to really affect your life.
The Importance of Perspective
It’s important that you can empathize with your partner and be compassionate toward their anxieties—but it won’t do either of you any good if you let their problems take over your life. You need to be able to get some distance. If you feel like you tend to take on your partner’s anxieties to a fault, it’s important to take a step back. “A good way to solve this is to recognize that you and your partner are separate people,” Hartstein says. “They can be stressed, or sad, or depressed. You can empathize with them, but do not have to take on their feelings.” Remembering that you are separate people—and recognizing your limits and your inability to solve all of your partner’s problems—can help keep their stress from having a debilitating influence on your life.
We're always going to pick up on and be affected by the emotions of people we care about—it's totally natural and, in many ways, a good thing. But when we start to let the stress and anxiety of someone else become our own source of torment, things can get out of hand. Try to get some perspective and remember that there's a difference between being a compassionate support system and becoming embroiled with someone else's anxiety. If you can protect yourself, it will make you a happier person—and a stronger partner.