Emotions – The greatest contagion of all!
Photo Credit: Unsplash - Sydney Sims
It’s far easier to catch someone’s emotions than it is to catch a cold.
While we brave the weekly grocery shopping adorning facemasks and wrestling little old ladies for the last tin of baked beans, we are more likely to ‘catch’ the collective emotions of others than we are the Coronavirus.
To keep us physically healthy we are all learning how to practice physical distancing and there’s lots of information available on how to wash our hands and surfaces correctly.
But how do we guard ourselves against ‘emotion contagion’?
Now is the time to arm ourselves with the knowledge of emotion contagion so we can lead the way through this pandemic and combat our fears and worries.
What is Emotion Contagion?
We are instinctively attuned to sense emotion in those around us.
I’m sure you can recall a moment when you ‘knew’ what someone was going to say or do? Or a time when you’d been chatting with someone only to finish each other’s sentences?
Have you ever thought about why we can be so easily influenced by someone’s mood or what causes us to sympathise or show empathy for others?
This is a concept referred to as emotion contagion.
If you’ve ever felt happy only to walk into a room where others are sad or upset, you’ll know how easy it is for us to get caught up in their emotions and have a heightened reaction. This also occurs when someone’s body language doesn’t match what they are saying, our brain immediately senses a threat or that something is wrong.
Right now, regardless of how resilient or emotionally aware you are, you will be picking up on the collective emotions of others.
Why do Moods Matter?
Our brains are finely tuned to other peoples' emotional states.
We can’t help but get emotionally involved in current world affairs to some extent. Depending on your natural level of empathy, some people will be more affected than others.
The good news is, by bringing this knowledge to our conscious awareness we can begin to lead the way to ‘positive’ emotion contagion for ourselves and those around us.
Think about a boat for a moment, how it sails along cutting through the waves and causing ‘wake’ behind it. How big the wake is and how much it impacts other boats will be determined by the size and speed of the boat and other outside influences like the weather.
Emotions are the same. Right now there is a wave of emotion covering the earth and we are all caught up in its emotional wake.
Empathy is the process of sharing and engaging in another’s experience. At the moment a lot of us are taking on collective empathy for all those that are suffering. This coupled with our own natural threat response and loss of freedom is a combination that can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
It’s a completely normal human response to feel this way.
However, it’s important to understand we can take on more stress than is useful for us.
What the heck are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are ‘what they say on the box’. Think about the purpose of a mirror, to reflect what we are seeing. Mirror neurons are activated when we do something and also when we observe the same action performed by another.
This means when we observe something our ‘mirror’ neurons fire as if we were doing it or going through something ourselves. This is how we learn and is why we cry at sad movies and laugh at funny ones.
The function of the mirror neurons is to learn from each other and also understand how others are feeling. Neuroscientists believe mirror neurons help us understand the actions and intentions of other people.
This is why emotions are contagious, our brains are designed to tap into each other so we can learn and empathise.
Now we have a better understanding of why we get caught up in collective emotions and why emotions are contagious you might be wondering…
How can I protect myself against emotion contagion?
Here are my 7 steps to good emotional contagion hygiene? Think of it as a facemask or a good warm water and soapy scrub for your mind.
1. Are the thoughts in my head helping or hindering me?
This helps because when we ask the brain a question it sets about looking for an answer and it distracts or interrupts the current thought pattern.
2. Am I present in the moment?
That is, are the things I’m worried about happening right now or am I trying to predict what will happen in the future or drawing on what’s happened in the past?
3. Are the emotions my own or in response to a thought or interaction with others?
If the emotions are not your own, remember how we’ve discussed the function of the mirror neurons and how emotions are contagious. It can be helpful to step away from the emotional source. Practice ‘Emotion Distancing’
4. Is there another way I can think about this?
This is what is referred to as reappraisal or reframing. When we reappraise a thought or behaviour we actively engage the brain’s braking system which can stop the spiral of unwanted thoughts.
5. Is my brain quiet enough for insights and solutions to occur?
Our brains must be in a relaxed state in order for us to have new and insightful ideas. This helps us to think things through clearly. When we relax our minds we connect less-used neurons which might be helpful for solving problems. We cannot hope to have come up with good solutions or react rationally while in a threatened state.
6. Would it be helpful for me to refocus my attention on something else?
For example, would it be useful to focus attention on the present rather than predicting a future that might not eventuate?
7. How can I maintain attention and stay fully present?
We can all do things to bring our awareness into the present moment. I like to look to my 'Personal Peace' List for inspiration to bring me into the current moment. You can check out my blog on creating a 'Personal Peace' List here.
And remember, positive emotions are contagious too.
Until next time, practice your ‘emotional’ and ‘physical’ distancing and stay safe.
Clinical Hypnotherapist & Neuroscience Researcher