JOURNEY TO WHOLENESS
Emotions are Contagious
Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.
“Do you want to catch it or spread it?” may seem a strange admonition this time of year as flu and cold germs stalk us around every corner. You may be spending a lot of time avoiding places and people where you may come into contact with COVID, flu, virus, and cold bacteria. You may be reading this as you are recovering from one of those nasty bugs.
Well, take heart, this will help you understand how to avoid another contagious bug. Extensive research in the last several decades tells us that emotions are contagious. Emotional contagion occurs when a person’s emotions and related behaviors lead to similar emotions and behaviors in others. It has been observed that we automatically mimic each other’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Outside of our awareness we actually feel what we mimicked and begin to act on them. These feelings can increase as we ‘catch’ them from others, who catch them back in an increasing spiral.
Emotions can spread more easily in person, but can also be transmitted through social media, phone calls, emails, and video chats. Knowing this can help us to acknowledge how we can influence others both negatively and positively and how they can affect us in the same way.
Our awareness of emotional contagion can reduce its negative effects.
In several different research studies, volunteers were assigned to be a 'leader'. They were shown different video clips designed to evoke a negative or positive mood. They were then assigned to a team. Team members' moods were measured before and after the task. In each study, the mood of the leader influenced the team significantly. And guess what? The negative mood of the leader was more 'contagious' than the positive mood. If the leader was up, some team members reported a good mood. But if the leader was down, everyone was down.
We are very vulnerable to each other's moods; smiles and frowns, critical or encouraging words. When it is pleasant, happy, or inspiring, then we feel good. When it is critical, fearful, or alarming, we go down the slippery slope of depression, anxiety, or sadness. We have a choice about whether we want to catch this emotional energy.
That is sometimes easier said than done.
Awareness of your emotional state can help you to be more in charge of the response to the emotional cues others give verbally, physically, or non-verbally. One exercise that can be helpful is to ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" Pay attention to your own mood. Are you happy, sad, angry, or content? Then tune in to your body and your physical environment. Ask yourself, "What am I aware of?" Pay attention to your body's calmness or agitation, feeling hot or cold, relaxed or tight. Be aware of how you are feeling in your surroundings at this moment. Moving from inner to outer awareness, from emotional to physical awareness will help you be more discerning about your own state of being. So often, when we are tired, feeling under pressure, or stressed, we are more prone to react quickly, taking on the mood, voice, words, or body language of another.
Some helpful exercises on learning more skills in understanding and working with your emotions can be found here. One of the exercises breaks down emotional awareness into paying attention to facial expressions, body language, and speech. It can be a group exercise but certainly something we can do as we go through our day. Observing these aspects of communication will help you to be more aware of what people are expressing emotionally. We can ‘decode’ behavior more accurately. This may help you to be more aware of what you are expressing.
In the 1990s neuroscientists found that when a monkey observed another monkey grabbing an object, the same neurons were stimulated. A similar process occurs in humans. This process is called ‘mirror neurons.” These specialized neurons and their networks help explain how we can mirror each other, including our emotions.
Mirroring and spreading positive or negative emotions has great implications for us. One study found that negative emotional contagion in a workplace led to more cognitive errors and accidents. Positive emotional contagion reduced errors and accidents.
Taking breaks from social media can increase positive affect. Hunt and colleagues (2018) found that students who limited their use of Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat to 30 minutes per day for three weeks experienced a significant reduction in loneliness and depressive symptoms, compared to students who were on social media as usual.
Think of what you can do to be more aware of what you are sending and receiving. This empowers you to be more in charge of your mood, and that of others. The smallest word or gesture can become more powerful, as you take charge of emotional contagion.
Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC is a counselor and educator. She is the author of the Life Weaving Education Curriculum that teaches creative, effective holistic problem-solving. For counseling appointments (confidential video or in-person sessions), seminars, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Relationship Therapy call