Fear is contagious. Natural selection has wired us to sense fear in our surroundings and make it our own. Zebras might not get ulcers from chronic stress but those that fail to activate their acute stress response when others around them are stressed are more likely to miss cues of threat and be consumed by a predator. Absorbing second-hand stress from others is a survival instinct—an adaptation shaped during prehistoric environments to promote evolutionary fitness.
However, our culture is evolving faster than our ability to biologically evolve. Too often, we helplessly rubberneck trainwreck events—often sensationalized by media for attracting attention and profit—despite their remote connection to our personal survival. For example, fear of the Ebola virus in recent weeks has become more viral than the virus itself. In the modern technology age where fear memes can spread around the globe near-instantly, our tendency to absorb second-hand stress from our ubiquitous, 24/7 media culture to activate our own stress response can produce maladaptive responses that are out of proportion to the actual threat.