What is it about?

Stress is a ubiquitous phenomenon that pervades all aspects of our lives. It is becoming an increasingly important concern of society because cumulative science demonstrates its detrimental effects on both individuals’ physical, mental, and social well-being and the institutions they belong to. Conventional wisdom tends to regard stress emerging from people’s inherent intrapersonal psychological response to situations where the demands are high, while resources that can be used to cope with these situations are low. Yet, this intrapersonal perspective of stress development has been challenged in the past decades. Increasing evidence suggests that interpersonal processes play a critical role in the spread of stress in communities. Building upon these progresses, my colleagues and I propose that stress can be better understood as a dynamic, network phenomenon. It develops and propagates in a social environment in which people establish and continuously modify their connections with others. We examine the dynamics of stress and social relations in a group of around 300 early and mid-career adults enrolled in a professional graduate for six months. We find that a focal person’s stress level tends to change towards those of their network contacts, accounting for their tendency to select friends with similar stress levels. Yet, not everyone is equally susceptible to this social influence. In particular, one is likely subject to stronger social influence on stress when their circle of friends expresses more congruent stress levels. Also, a low level of neuroticism, a high level of conscientiousness, and a high level of internal control orientation help buffer the transmission of stress.

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Why is it important?

Our findings provide insights for practitioners who want to design network intervention programs to reduce population stress levels and promote health outcomes in communities. Merely encouraging people to make many friends or blatantly express their overwhelming feelings has a limited effect or even backfires in tackling network-wide stress. The tendency to reach out to similarly stressed others and change one's stress level to resemble their peers can lead to and reinforce the segregation of high-stress and low-stress individuals in networks. Our findings regarding the buffering role of consensus and certain personality traits in the social influence of stress shed light on potential strategies that may help disrupt this cycle. For example, one could put in place a community-level intervention that would encourage individuals who are experiencing stress to intentionally avoid co-ruminating with similarly stressed others. In addition, people with low neuroticism, high locus of control, and high conscientiousness could be encouraged to reach out to and be mentors for those who are experiencing a lot of stress. It is also important to create a supportive and low-stress peer group for the mentors to mitigate the potential negative impact of interacting with high-stress peers.


I hope this article facilitates our understanding of how stress pervades social networks and what helps alleviate its transmission via social ties. What we find has the potential to enable the formulation of effective, precautionary strategies to reduce the cost of stress contagion, and guarantee the health of individuals, organizations, and communities in this fast-paced and high-demanding era where everyone is closely connected.

Shihan Li
Carnegie Mellon University

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This page is a summary of: Do your friends stress you out? A field study of the spread of stress through a community network., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, January 2023, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000415.
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