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Why We Feel Other People’s Fear: Exploring Vicarious Anxiety and Stress

A woman sitting at a desk with her head in her hands feeling anxious, surrounded by other people who are stressed, to represent vicarious anxiety

Understanding Vicarious Anxiety: What It Is and How It Affects Us

At the time of writing this, it’s exam season; the couple of months in the calendar where the collective anxiety of a significant section of the population is much higher than usual.

Being the parent of a teen going through this rite of passage, I started to reflect on my own experience of this anxious time.

Stepping back and becoming an observer, I found it fascinating how the stress and worry seem to permeate through various layers, affecting not only those directly involved in the exams but also multiple circles of acquaintance around them.

I became particularly aware of just how much I was empathising with my teen’s anxiety after meeting for coffee with a friend and afterwards realising that the dominating theme of my side of the conversation was my worries about what my teen was going through; I realised that I was experiencing vicarious anxiety – thankfully my friend knows me well and was happy to let me verbally process it through with her!

Vicarious anxiety is when our fear response is triggered by the fact that others around us are anxious or stressed – we absorb and react to the anxiety being experienced by others.

In other words, fear is catching.


The Psychological Basis of Vicarious Anxiety: How It Works

If you’re a regular reader of my blogs then you will know that I often make sense of things from an evolutionary psychology perspective, and this topic is no different.

Lots of things that might not seem to make much sense in the context of how we live in the modern world, actually do make sense when we think about how our ancestors lived.

Two fingers with cartoon faces and arms drawn onto them to look like they are hugging each other, to represent feeling fearful

It might not be obvious at first as to why feeding off someone else’s anxiety might have been a good thing for them, but it has roots in social bonding, empathy, and survival.

Pre-agricultural humans relied heavily on social connectedness to survive, as it would have helped them to secure and share resources, along with defending against threats.

So having the ability to empathise with your peer group, to share in their emotions, especially their fear and anxiety, would have provided an evolutionary advantage compared to groups that were unable to connect in this way.

Imagine living as part of a Palaeolithic community.

These were dangerous times, you would be at the mercy of the elements and vulnerable to being preyed upon by wild animals…and other rival communities!

If you are able to recognise and respond to a heightened state of arousal in one of your group members that has detected a potential threat, i.e. sharing in their fear, then there is more likely to be a collective response.

The enhanced vigilance and cohesive action of the group would likely have improved the likelihood of survival prospects of the group as a whole, so it’s hypothesised that the development of shared feelings evolved as a mechanism for fostering social bonds and cooperation.

Our ancestors experiencing vicarious anxiety likely demonstrated their commitment to the wellbeing of their social group, thus reinforcing social bonds and strengthening the collective resilience of their community.

Compared to the length of time that humans have walked the earth (approximately 200,000 years), the modern times we inhabit now are just a blink of an eye.

There have been numerous generations for this trait of shared feelings to become hardwired into our ‘self-preservation’ mechanism.

So broadly speaking, whilst modern society presents us with very different challenges and perceived dangers compared to those faced by our ancestors, the underlying mechanisms are still there – our technological world has evolved around us at a speed far greater than biology ever could.

The problem with this is that we’re not dealing with the immediate physical and societal dangers of our ancestors.

A snapshot of a person's leg as they flee a scene in fear and anxiety

Broadly speaking, the kinds of problems that we encounter on a daily basis don’t involve taking direct action in response to an immediate threat to our life, rather we are often experiencing a fear response without being able to recognise a clear, tangible source.

Over time, this can lead to a range of issues because the body ends up in a chronic state of fight or flight, without resolving the underlying tension.


The Impact of Vicarious Anxiety on Mental Health and Society

If we are continuously absorbing the fear and anxiety of those around us then we can start to develop chronic stress and anxiety issues ourselves.

If we have underlying anxiety issues ourselves, such as worry, panic, or social anxiety, then the long-term exposure to other people’s fear can feed into this and exacerbate things for us.

It’s a bit like the emotional reasoning thinking habit that I discuss here, where we judge a situation that we’re experiencing based on the emotions that are joining us at the time.

Two people sitting within a bookshelf, on differen shelves, to represent simultaneous isolation and connection in anxiety and stress

Only on these occasions, we’re responding to group emotions – “everyone else is fearful, so there must be a threat”.

In the most extreme of situations, there is the phenomenon of ‘emotional contagion’ where individuals ‘catch’ the emotional states of others, and large groups of people can become affected simultaneously.

In highly connected communities there can be a rapid and pervasive spread of the emotional state.

An example of this is when Diana, Princess of Wales passed away.

Mainstream media beamed coverage of the situation into everyone’s living rooms 24/7 for days and days, prompting widespread public mourning the likes of which had never been seen before in the UK.

These days, with the popularity of social media, our social connectedness is even higher, perhaps making us even more vulnerable to being impacted by the emotional state of others.

On a smaller scale, individuals who work in settings involving caregiving, such as hospitals and residential homes, will be regularly empathising with, and absorbing, the emotional reactions of their patients/clients and colleagues.

Consequently, they may find themselves becoming emotionally exhausted, detached, and feeling ineffective.

A key reason why self-care for the caring professions is so vital!


Coping Mechanisms and Strategies to Combat Vicarious Anxiety

So what can this self-care look like?

Personal Strategies for Managing Vicarious Anxiety:

Increasing Your Awareness of Your Vicarious Anxiety

Always, the first step in managing any problem is awareness – recognising that there is a problem there.

A hand holding out a lightbulb to represent recognising a problem

In my example above, I did this when I reflected on the meeting with my friend and realised how much my side of the conversation had been dominated by my anxiety about my teen.

We can’t do something about something unless we recognise what that something is.

The more we can be present moment focused, paying attention to what our mood or stress levels are doing, especially when we’re with other people or consuming social media, the more we can identify whether how we feel is linked to our own experiences or to those of others around us.

Reflective Journaling to Improve Awareness of Your Vicarious Anxiety

Keeping a reflective journal is a great way of helping us spot patterns and triggers

An open notebook and pens, the words "thought catalog" written on the page

to vicarious anxiety that we might not otherwise see.

It’s far easier for the brain to see a pattern when it’s written down than by just relying on memory – it’s the difference between being able to look at the experience rather than from it.

Setting Boundaries to Reduce Exposure to Vicarious Anxiety

Once you have identified individuals who are sources of vicarious anxiety, it is an important part of self-care to learn to set boundaries where they are concerned.

A sign on a fence, saying "Private, No Public Right of Way"

This might look like limiting the amount of time you spend with them, or where that isn’t possible, then being completely clear about not discussing topics that you know are going to feed into your stress and anxiety.

There is also the impact of media to take into consideration.

Try to be more aware of the types of media that you are consuming – have you got the news channel constantly on in the background?

You might think that you’re not paying attention most of the time and it’s just background noise, but it is surprising how much your subconscious will be taking in without you realising it.

So try to avoid sensationalist news sources, whether they are ‘official’ organisations or they are social media ‘influencers’, because they could be amplifying your fear and anxiety.

Opt for reliable and balanced news outlets, and set limits on your daily consumption – consider setting specific times of the day to check your social media and/or listen to the news, then avoid it outside of these times.

Taking media ‘fasts’ is increasingly becoming popular as people are realising the significant impact that overconsumption is having on them.

Scrabble tiles spelling out the words "Social Network", each tile being connected by a wire

Taking periodic breaks from all things digital can significantly reduce stress and anxiety – remember, we are no different to Palaeolithic people…we aren’t designed to be in this digital environment connected to millions of other people.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that humans can maintain stable social relationships with around 150 people, and anything above is challenging and can lead to cognitive load.

Recently I wrote about how to understand cognitive load, also known as mental load, and ways in which to manage it; check out that post here.

Mindfulness as a Strategy to Combat Vicarious Anxiety

I mentioned above about being present moment focused; this is a mindful approach.

Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in the health media and I think that it’s easy to conflate mindfulness and meditation, but they are different things.

We can do anything mindfully.

The simplest way of understanding mindfulness is that it is being fully present in the moment, observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgement.

Partial reflection of a woman's face in a shard of mirror being held up by her hand

So when you are practising mindfulness you are developing your ‘observing self’; you are moving through the world without labelling or reacting, simply paying attention.

We can do this anytime and anywhere – mindfully walking the dog, mindfully eating our dinner, mindfully listening to music…and so on.

Meditation as a Tool for Managing Vicarious Anxiety

I think that the reason that mindfulness and meditation are often confused is because meditation is often used as a vehicle to teach or to achieve mindfulness.

In his book Bliss More, Light Watkins describes mindfulness as being a side effect of meditation.

A seated woman meditating in the woods

So meditation is a structured practice requiring a dedicated time and environment.

Some people really engage well with this and love it, but it’s not for everyone – the key point here is that not wanting to sit and meditate doesn’t mean that you can’t still engage with mindful practices.

Physical Movement for Busting Stress and Anxiety

For many years we have been led to believe that exercise is about weight control.

But as I discuss in my post here, this is a very one-dimensional view perpetuated by the processed food industry as a way of deflecting from the impact that their products are having on the health of the nation.

However, movement is extremely important for us to help reduce stress and is an excellent tool for combating anxiety and depression.

A couple dancing on the beach

Physical activity helps us to process adrenaline and cortisol that build up in our systems due to our chronic stress response, as well as generating endorphins which is a double-pronged contribution to improving mood, and so provides a healthy outlet for stress.

Hobbies and Interests to Enrich Your Life and Reduce Your Stress

When we can lose ourselves in an activity that we enjoy, all our focus will be on what we are doing and it comes away from focusing on whatever is causing us to be anxious or stressed.

A man surrounded by houseplants, repotting a large green plant

In this way, it can be relaxing, even if it is quite a vigorous activity, and it can also provide us with a sense of fulfilment or reward.

And if that hobby or interest is something that involves spending time in nature, then you will get even more bang for your buck as activities like walking your dog in the woods or hiking through the countryside, etc. can be incredibly soothing and grounding.


Moving Forwards: Building Awareness and Resilience Against Vicarious Anxiety

Whilst it’s clear that it can be challenging at times to manage vicarious anxiety, there are effective strategies that you can use to help yourself.

By fostering a culture of empathy, support, and open communication, we can mitigate the impact of ‘contagious fear’ to enhance our wellbeing.

Remember that you are not alone in experiencing anxiety, it’s part of our hard wiring, so we all experience it from time to time.

Being proactive in taking steps to pre-empt and manage your stress, then not putting off seeking support when you need it, helps you to build your resilience and maintain good mental health.

Be mindful of the emotional influences around you, practice self-care, and reach out to others who also could be struggling – together we can create a more supportive and resilient community.

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