Is Stress Contagious?

posted by Martin Boroson on May 5 2011

For National Stress Awareness Month, I wrote two articles here about how we pick up stress from others and pass it on–what I called “stresscalation.” I argued that we have an ethical obligation to stop our own role in this stresscalation.

But could we also play a role in stopping the stresscalation that we find around us?

While pondering this, I remembered a much-loved picture book from my childhood, A Fly Went By, by Mike McClintock. This simple story not only illustrates how stress can be contagious–it also shows us a state of mind that can help us stop the stresscalation.

A Fly Went By begins on a sunny, summer morning. A young boy relaxes in a rowboat, at the edge of a lake. Without a care in his mind, he remarks:

I sat by the lake,
I looked at the sky,
And as I looked,
A fly went by.

But the fly is in a terrible panic, and so the boy asks him what’s happening. The fly stops just long enough to explain that he is being chased by a frog, and then flies off. Then the frog appears, also in a rush, and the boy demands to know why the frog is chasing the fly. But the frog hasn’t even seen the fly. He is being chased by a cat.

One by one, animals rush past the boy–a fly, a frog, a cat, a dog, a pig, a cow, a fox, and then finally a man, carrying a rifle. The boy stops each one to ask what is causing the panic. In each case, he is told the same thing: each one is running from another.

The man does not even know who or what is chasing him. He had simply heard a loud noise coming toward him. Assuming that this was something terribly big and mad, he began to run. And then he, too, dashes off, leaving the boy to meet the source of this terrible noise alone.
What does it turn out to be?

Nothing but a tin can, stuck on the hoof of a little, lame sheep. The sheep was, indeed, running after the man … but only to ask him for help.

Having found the source of the panic, the boy then gathers all the animals together by yelling, “Stop!” He explains to them the whole sequence of misunderstandings–how the fly was afraid of the frog, who was afraid of the cat, who was afraid of the dog … and so on.

The crisis is now over. The man liberates the little sheep’s hoof from the tin can. And the boy surveys the assembled animals and observes,

I looked at them all,
And then I could tell.
They all had no fear.
And now all was well.

In this remarkable story, we get a clear parable for the contagiousness of stress–how a problem can be misunderstood, amplified, and transmitted–and how our own fears and stress can contribute to this.

What interests me most, however, is the personality of this boy. What kind of mind (or mindset) enabled him to stop the stresscalation?

The boy was able to witness the drama around him without getting caught by it. His own fears–if he had any–were never triggered. Because of this, he could approach each instance of panic calmly, and inquire dispassionately as to the reason for it. He could examine each link in the whole chain reaction, and see it for what it was.

You could say that he was just being rational. But he was neither cold nor detached. He felt real concern for others. He got involved. So, it would be better to say that his peaceful nature gave him the ability to care for others, and see the situation calmly and rationally.

This state of mind–peaceful, compassionate, rational–is precisely the state of mind that is cultivated through the practice of meditation. In fact, if you are curious about how meditation could help you cope with stress, or help you to help others cope with stress, I can think of no better metaphor than this story.

Meditation helps us find a “witness” position within ourselves, a perspective from which we can see the drama of the world (and the drama of our own minds) clearly, without getting caught up in it. And from this position, we can help more effectively.

Of course, the source of our stress may not always be as innocent and innocuous as a lame little sheep. There are indeed many compelling reasons to be afraid or stressed these days: Traffic jams. Lack of time. The economy. Weapons of mass destruction. The climate crisis. Computers crashing. Healthcare. Or just the boss dumping a new project on your desk at the last minute.

But even when our problems are significant, approaching them from a more peaceful, meditative point-of-view can help. With a more meditative mind, we are less likely to take on these problems in a stressful way. And if we do get stressed, a meditative mind can help us notice that we’re stressed, do something about it, and make sure that we don’t pass the stress on to others. And if we do have a serious problem, having a more meditative mind makes us more likely to find a novel solution.

If we are really interested in stopping the contagion of stress, perhaps the most valuable thing we could do is cultivate a bit more peacefulness within ourselves. And if we care about having a more peaceful world–or just having more peaceful workplaces or families–the same applies. To quote that tireless peace campaigner, Peace Pilgrim, “World peace will never be stable until enough of us find inner peace to stabilize it.” This is what the boy has done. This is the state of mind that he exemplifies.

In the final scene of A Fly Went By, we see our young hero much as he was at the beginning–relaxing in a rowboat at the edge of a lake, now against a setting sun. Peaceful as ever, he reflects,

They all went away,
They all waved goodbye,
SO …
I sat by the lake,
And I looked at the sky



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