Stress affects everyone. Whether it’s routine stress related to pressures at work, school or family, stress that occurs from a sudden negative change, such as job loss, divorce, illness or traumatic stress that occurs after a major accident, physical assault or natural disaster, our recovery depends on our coping skills.

Recognizing the signs of stress, such as insomnia, increased alcohol consumption, anger, depression and low energy levels, is the first step in coping.

According to the American Institute of Stress, 77 percent of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73 percent regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. About 33 percent feel they are living with extreme stress, and 48 percent feel their stress has increased over the past five years. The effects of stress tend to build over time.

The link between chronic stress and the potential for mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, is well-established.

In an earlier study, researchers from the Brain Mind Institute at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) highlighted a fundamental synaptic mechanism that explains the relationship between chronic stress and the loss of social skills and cognitive impairment, which is why we get grouchy, grumpy, nasty, distracted or forgetful.

Basically, when triggered by stress, an enzyme attacks a synaptic regulatory molecule in the brain. But how does our stress affect those around us?

In a recent study, Dr. Jaideep Bains and his team at the Cumming School of Medicine's Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary have discovered that stress transmitted from others can change our brains in the same way as our own stress.

The research team studied the effects of stress in pairs of male or female mice. They removed one mouse from each pair and exposed it to a mild stress before returning it to its partner.

They then examined the responses of a specific population of cells, specifically corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons that control the brain's response to stress, in each mouse, which revealed that networks in the brains of both the stressed mouse and naïve partner were altered in the same way.

According to lead author Toni-Lee Sterley, a postdoctoral associate in Bains' lab, the remarkable finding was that CRH neurons from the partners, who were not themselves exposed to an actual stress, showed changes that were identical to those measured in the stressed mice.

The next step was to use optogenetic approaches to engineer these neurons so that they could either be turned on or off with light. When the team silenced these neurons during stress, they prevented changes in the brain that would normally take place after stress.

When they silenced the neurons in the partner during its interaction with a stressed individual, the stress did not absence of stress, the brain of the mouse receiving light and that of the partner were changed just as they would be after a real stress.

Activation of these CRH neurons causes the release of a chemical signal from the mouse that alerts the partner. The partner who detects the signal can in turn alert additional members of the group.

The study also shows that the effects of stress on the brain are reversed in female mice following a social interaction, which was not true for male mice.

But are these alarm signals present in humans? The researchers contend that we communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it, and there is evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD. Stress and social interactions may be intricately linked.

We often feel as if we are catching someone’s stress, that such stress is contagious. However, this study suggests that stress alters the brain on a cellular level and may influence behaviors later.