We all catch other people’s emotions. It’s called ‘emotional contagion’ because the effect is similar to catching a bug, only it’s an emotion we catch rather than a cold.
It is extremely common and probably much more so than you’d think. In fact, some research suggests that about 15-25% of the average person’s emotional state at any time has little to do with the circumstances of their life, but is simply what they’ve caught from others. Think about that for a moment. How much of your emotions throughout the day are your emotions and how much have you simply ‘picked up’ from other people?
You’ve probably noticed it when you’re around certain people. Maybe even at work.
Have you noticed that you tend to feel stressed around people who are stressed? Calm around relaxed people? Even jittery around people who are anxious? And once you’re no longer in their company, you can still feel the effects for hours afterwards.
Just about everyone can relate to this. Now, it’s easy to assume that emotional contagion is due to what the person is saying, which does of course matter. About 10-40% of emotional contagion may indeed be down to what’s being said. But about 60-90% of it is not WHAT is being said, but HOW it is being said. Emotional contagion is carried more in our non-verbal communication – through facial expressions, body language, etc.
How it works
If you want to know how it works, say you’re with someone who is stressed. Our natural tendency for empathy means that our brains mirror the facial expressions of each other. Your brain has a network known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), which effectively mirrors the facial expressions of the person you’re giving your attention to. If he or she is stressed, the muscles between their eyebrows will contract (known as the corrugator supercillii), and their jaw, neck and shoulders will probably tense too.
Your MNS will mirror, that is, copy, these muscle movements. It then signals your own muscles to do the same and so the longer you spend in their company, the more your own corrugator supercillii will contract and your jaw, neck and shoulders will tense. At the same time, the MNS pings your emotional circuitry to produce the emotions that go with this pattern of muscle tension. The longer you’re in their company, the more you feel how they feel.
It’s great when you’re around people who feel like sunshine because they lift you up and make you feel brightly, but it can be difficult when you’re around angry or stressed people a lot. This is where a technique for deflecting, or blocking, emotional contagion comes in handy.
I developed this myself several years ago when I suddenly became aware of what was happening. I was writing a book at the time (The Contagious Power of Thinking, published in 2011) and had the startling realisation of why I always felt the way I did around certain people and in specific situations.
I took an emotional contagion test (you can get one on this link) and scored 57 / 60 (95% percentile), putting me right up there in the ‘highly sensitive’ bracket.
The MNS tends to work unconsciously in that we typically don’t notice it, but I realised that we can quite easily take control of it and use it in a positive way to deflect, or block, unwanted emotions. Here’s how.
How to block unwanted emotions
The first step is simply to notice that it’s happening. This turns something that’s usually happening unconsciously into something conscious that can be harnessed.
The next step uses the fact that the dominant route of emotional contagion is through facial expressions, so the idea is to scramble the information that’s been reaching your MNS.
A simple way to do this is to rub and stretch the corrugator supercillii muscles and your jaw (or neck – whichever is tensing). An even more effective way is to spend a few seconds stretching out as many of your facial muscles as you can, but of course if you’re in a business meeting then this might look a wee bit strange. You can always do what I once did, by ‘accidentally’ dropping my pen and stretching and contorting my facial muscles like a gargoyle as I reached down to pick it up, out of sight of everyone.
The final step is to adopt facial expressions and a body posture that is consistent with the way you want to feel. So if you want to feel relaxed, for example, then relax your facial muscles, wear a soft smile, straighten your spine, drop your shoulders, and breathe steadily with your attention on your breath and your face, shoulders, etc.
That’s it. My experience is that this stops negative emotional contagion in its tracks and creates the state you want within less than a minute. And the more you practice it, the faster you get results.
Here’s a simple summary of the 3 steps:
Step 1: Notice that you’re catching people’s emotion
Step 2: Scramble the information reaching your MNS by stretching your facial muscles
Step 3: Assert the facial expressions and body posture that are consistent with how you want to feel
There is another way, of course, to stop catching specific people’s emotions. You could always leave the room. But, if that’s not an option, then this technique is the next best thing.
I hope you find it useful.
**By David R. Hamilton PhD