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Emotional Contagion: What is it? Are you affected? And how can you protect yourself?  

Emotions are contagious! And the result of catching feelings can be a positive or negative experience. Find out what emotional contagion is, whether you’re affected by it, and what you can do to help control the spread.

Ruby Deevoy

Empathy, and the way we relate to each other has never been more important than it is today. During Lockdown, many of us found ourselves living in close quarters day in, day out with family. Even those isolating alone have taken to social media and conference call platforms to keep communication flowing and relationships in tact. And it’s this contact with one another, however we manage it, that has possibly the biggest impact on our mental wellbeing than anything else – both in a positive and negative sense.

What is Emotional Contagion?

The exchange of emotions, and the shared impact they have, is a phenomenon known as emotional contagion: a process involving our ‘mirror neuron’ where one person’s emotional state and resulting behaviour triggers a mirrored response in others. 

This human instinct of emotional contagion lies at the heart of empathy, and it’s something we all experience nearly every time we interact with each other, stemming from the ancestral desire to bond, to share, and to survive. It has the wonderful capacity for sharing joyous emotions (just think of a time you got the giggles with friends), but equally, negative emotions such as fear, anger or sadness are readily amplified.

How-does-Emotional-Contagion-work

Photo by Nik Shuliahin

How does Emotional Contagion work?

‘The impact of other people’s emotions can be felt almost on a spectrum from beneficial all the way to malign.’

~ Sally Baker senior Therapist, Author and Speaker 

Emotional contagion is when someone else’s first hand experience and resulting emotions influence our own. It can cause us to have our own mood improved (perhaps in listening to a happy or funny story) or tumble head-first into a shared, negative mindset. Even though these thoughts and experiences are being passed on second hand, it’s not at all unusual for you to fully feel the emotional impact. 

What does Emotional Contagion look and feel like?

It all starts with our mirror neuron triggering non-conscious mimicry – copying communication cues from someone absorbed in the way they are feeling, such as movement, facial expression and posture. As you automatically sync up outward behaviour, your body will start to internally respond to what would appear to be your own physical cues to a situation, perhaps by providing a great whoosh of happy hormones, or the less appealing fight or flight response. 

Finally, you find yourself chemically and physically matched up. Your emotional response then shifts, maybe stimulating happiness or anger when fear takes hold, as though the circumstances which sparked those reactions originally were experienced, personally, by you.

How-does-Emotional-Contagion-work

Photo by Caroline Veronez

Emotional Contagion Online

Although the process of emotional contagion is something we’re used to unconsciously exchanging face to face, the way in which we spread and contract emotions has, in recent years, found new routes via social media too. A stealthy study performed via Facebook revealed that our emotional state is also strongly influenced by what we see online. 

Is social media spreading emotional contagion?

In the study, almost 700,000 Facebook members had their news feeds secretly tweaked for a week to show happy and positive content, while others were altered to display sadder content. When the week was up, these manipulated users were then found to make more positive or negative posts themselves, corresponding with the emotional content they had been viewing. This suggests that even small, online interactions and reading material can spark emotional contagion.

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Protect Yourself from Emotional Contagion

Right now, emotions are raw and many of us feel more vulnerable than usual. There will be elation and excitement in the air and on our screens as we see loved ones again for the first time in months. But we may also find ourselves encountering and experiencing grief, fear and anger more frequently too. And while a deeper empathy exchange is vital when creating a support network, it’s also vital to protect yourself and others from being pulled into negative emotional contagion.

An Expert Guide to Emotional Contagion Defense

Fortunately, although we are programmed to soak up feelings around us like a sponge, it’s possible to develop the psychological skill-set to consciously take in positivity and protect yourself from negativity and other’s distress, while still offering support to those in need.

‘Being aware of other people’s emotions and having one’s own emotions acknowledged is an important aspect of mental well-being. Self-protection from emotional contagion begins with self-awareness, so it’s important to check in with yourself regularly to find out how you’re feeling. This is the first step towards keeping your emotions untangled from other’s.’ 

~ Sally Baker senior Therapist, Author and Speaker 

Help yourself (and others too) by following these simple mindfulness tips for avoiding the spread of Emotional Contagion:

Keeping a positive outlook can feel like a real challenge some days. But nourishing your mind, body and soul with the love, laughter and kindness that is always there to be found, while keeping negativity at bay, is one of the most powerful tools you can use to maintain a deep, core grounding in happiness. Emotional contagion can be damaging to mental health, but it can also be wonderful a way to bond with family and friends - you just need to know how to look after yourself and others.

  • Becoming familiar with your own emotions is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of emotional contagion. Even though your body may instinctively react to the way someone else is feeling, if you know your own mind it’s far easier to step out of that emotional cloud, listen, acknowledge and remain unaffected. Do this through mindfulness – start your mornings with deep breathing and bringing your awareness into each part of your body. Start to notice physical feelings (do you need to stretch? Are you hungry?) and then move into emotions. 

  • Often we will have residual emotions from dreams, so notice these and let them go. Keep checking in without yourself physically and emotionally through the day so you know where you’re at. This way, when you encounter emotional contagion, you’ll soon be very quick to spot the feelings that don’t belong to you, which you can then release.

  • Those who really struggle to keep worries under control can be quite persistent in trying to get you to share their world view. This usually doesn’t come from a place of malice, but rather an attempt to make themselves feel heard and safe. In some cases, you may wish to limit the contact you have with them but if that’s not an option it’s important that you create boundaries to protect your own mental health. You could use visualisation techniques here, picturing a window winding up between you so that you can still see and hear them but nothing can touch you. It’s also helpful to understand that laying ground rules in these situations is OK – maybe scheduling a time to talk (even in 10 minute’s time so you can ground yourself in your own emotions first) or even having a code word agreed to stop if you’re feeling pulled under.
 
  • If you’re finding that your own emotions are stranded in negativity, make a point of taking a break from social media, news articles and contact with others who feed into that. Instead, fill your time with focused positivity like starting a daily gratitude journal or participating in activities which bring you joy.

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