Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can occur after a life-threatening or terrifying event, affects about 3.5 percent of adults in the United States, according to the American Psychiatric Association. In recent years it’s become evident that PTSD can also affect people who do not experience trauma first-hand but are in close proximity to the people who have, whether it be as a family member, a therapist or a rescue worker. A recent article in Scientific American cites collective research suggesting that 10 to 20 percent of people “closely involved with those who have PTSD ‘catch’ the condition themselves…” These people can experience the same symptoms of PTSD including intrusive thoughts like nightmares or flashbacks as well as hyperarousal that may include angry outbursts and reckless behavior. According to research cited by Scientific American, people who are more empathetic appear to be more susceptible to “catching” the disorder.

“The idea that stress can be transferred through a social mechanism is a fascinating area of brain research,” says Dr. Terry Hamlin, Associate Executive Director at The Center for Discovery®. “We have seen indications of this in the longitudinal data we’ve been gathering in our Lab School — when a stress response is triggered in one of our children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the staff often have a mirroring stress response.”

TCFD uses wearable technology – in this case biometric sensors worn on the wrist – that monitor the sympathetic nervous system and pick up stress signals, like perspiration and skin temperature. This research has identified individual triggers and allowed experts to study how stress contributes to challenging behaviors and how to manage it. “Our data certainly indicates that there are cases of stress contagion among some of our classroom staff. If left untreated, this can develop into a chronic condition with debilitating effects,” says Dr. Hamlin. “It’s why we are paying more attention to wellness activities and making sure we have regular debriefings with staff to understand their stress levels. It also informs how we help the families of children with complex conditions deal with the stress.”

This is an area of research TCFD will expand when its new Research Institute for Brain and Body Health opens in 2020. The Research Institute will be the laboratory of the future, attracting the world’s foremost researchers to collaborate on pioneering studies that will deepen our understanding, develop new tools and treatments, and further advance the standard of care.