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JOURNEY TO WHOLENESS - July 2017 - Kansas City
Emotional Contagion: Are You Catching or Creating?
By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.
Did you know that emotions can be contagious? You may be aware that when you are around happy people, you are happier. Conversely, being around lonely people may make you feel lonelier. How does this happen?
Many studies have confirmed that we, very quickly and unconsciously, mimic the frown, smile, or other kinds of emotional expression of others. Our brain ‘mirrors’ these expressions and interprets them as our own feelings. This process in which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behavior of another person or groups through the conscious or unconscious influence of emotions is called emotional contagion (EC). This can impact our personal and professional relationships in powerful ways.
As I was thinking about how we are affected by our environment, I am also reminded about how powerful we are in creating a negative or positive space. As a mental health professional I have long paid much attention to the physical and emotional surrounding I provide for the people I see. In my new office space there is light, calming colors, comfortable furniture and art that will hopefully evoke a feeling of comfort, brightness and safety. Making sure I am personally emanating the emotions and presence that will provide a safe container for each person is a more difficult task.
EC can be both negative and positive. We can give or receive sadness, fear, anger, happiness, or love. Some people are more affected by others’ emotions and more likely to take them on as their own. Shellie Bourg Carger, Psy.D. in the online Psychology Today article “Emotional Contagion Scale”, lists the questions you can ask yourself to determine how vulnerable you are to taking on the emotions of others.
This can be a good trait as we often feel empathy in our conversations and connections with others. It can become more negative if we cannot distinguish between our emotions and those of others. Caretakers and professionals who work with persons who are suffering emotionally or physically can become burned out and depressed if they take on the suffering of others.
Another important thing we need to understand is the negativity bias of the brain. We react more quickly and with greater sensitivity to negative experiences. Rick Hanson in The Buddha’s Brain tells us that it takes zero seconds for a negative experience to register in the brain and fifteen seconds for a positive one. He says we have Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. To balance the negative and positive response rates it is agreed by researchers that we need five positive experiences to every negative one.
There are two behavioral sides of this EC coin. We can catch other’s emotions, taking them on as our own and we can influence the emotions of others by how we communicate ours.
When you sense you are absorbing too much anxiety, sadness, irritability or negativity from someone, notice, but stay calm. Breathe deeply and imagine yourself as separate from the other person, taking in positive and letting the negative emotions bounce off. You might ask yourself “Am I feeling sad or am I responding to the other person’s sadness?”
Notice your facial expressions, gestures, voice tone, and rate of speech. Notice that of the other persons. Are you mimicking them or are they mimicking you? We can often dramatically change the emotional tone of any communication by regulating our words and body language.
We can change the environment by paying attention to either catching or creating the emotional experience. We have more control than we may have imagined. Pay more attention and see what happens.
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Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author. For counseling appointments, seminars, training, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Couple therapy call 913-322-5622. For more information about Jude LaClaire or the Kansas City Holistic Centre go to