When we think of contagion, rarely do the emotions of others come to mind. So, it may surprise you to learn that emotions, primarily negative ones – like fear, anxiety and outrage – are actually highly contagious.
In a recent Psychology Today post, anger management specialist Bernard Golden, Ph.D. asks us to reflect on our immunity to anger. While anger can be an authentic and often productive emotion, this isn’t the kind of anger Golden is talking about. The anger he is referring to might be closer to outrage, a very strong reaction of shock and righteous indignation. It’s what we feel when we feel threatened by the words and actions of others. Or when we encounter what we believe to be morally wrong.
According to Dr. Golden, we are living in a pandemic of anger right now, with many of us lacking the self-reflection needed to restrain our words and actions when we’re reacting.
How Emotional Contagion Works
Consider how an exchange with an upbeat person can brighten your day and how a negative interaction can sully it. This is emotional contagion.
It’s worth noting again that negative emotions like fear, anxiety and outrage are among the more contagious of our emotions. These are most often the ones politicians leverage to manipulate us, get us to vote for their side and also to divide us.
As an example of how this works, imagine yourself in the grocery store at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday evening. The store is packed with shoppers who are eager to get home and start the weekend. You’re heading for the checkout line. As you make your way through the narrow aisle, you accidentally bump another shopper’s cart. When you apologize, the shopper snarls back, “How could you be so careless!”
Sit with this for a second. What do you think might happen next?
Here is one scenario:
Imagining yourself to be perfectly calm, you stare the woman down and remind her that you apologized!
Of course, you aren’t calm at all. The truth is, you’re infuriated with this stranger – just as infuriated as the stranger likely is with you.
If you see this interaction as an opportunity for self-awareness, here is what might happen next:
Suddenly, you see yourself. You separate your reaction from the woman’s behavior and acknowledge that your reaction may not have happened by choice, but what you do about it certainly is.
So, you make the choice to pause, calm down and take full responsibility for your reaction instead of blaming the other person for how you feel.
Boosting Your Immunity to Emotional Contagion
In his article, Dr. Golden promotes mindfulness as an antidote to getting swept up in others’ negative emotions. Here are some specific tips for cultivating awareness and dealing effectively with someone else’s emotional reaction, or even rhetoric designed to elicit a reaction from you.
1. Press Pause on your reaction by reminding yourself to witness others’ emotions instead of taking them on and making them your own.
When you recognize someone around you is feeling anger, fear or anxiety, remind yourself that you’re witnessing their emotions… and recognize that the emotions of a more-than-likely tired and “hangry” woman making the slog home for dinner after a tough week are not your emotions.
When you press Pause on your emotional reaction to remind yourself of this, you engage the conscious, rational part of your brain. Making this reminder your first priority helps your brain diffuse your stress response before it turns into a full-blown meltdown. It also helps you recognize that the other person’s emotions are about them, and not about you, no matter how it seems in the heat of your reaction.
The truth is, nothing diffuses tension between two people better than one of them maintaining a non-reactive emotional state.
Here’s the deal:
Your body is hardwired to react to external triggers as a survival mechanism. When someone runs into a room screaming that the house is on fire, you want your stress response to kick in on high gear so you can immediately remove yourself to safety. “Catching” this person’s fear helps you do that.
But when the house isn’t actually on fire, emotional contagion is a lot less useful. To counteract its effects, start with awareness that the emotions belong to the other person and not to you. This helps your brain recalibrate the reality of the situation, so you can respond appropriately, instead of acting out your reaction.
This realization can occur within seconds once you get in the habit of pausing and calming down in the presence of any stressor, including someone else’s strong emotions.
2. Breathe as your first response.
Okay, so you’ve taken on the anger of the shopper you bumped into. But what if you quickly came to understand that the real problem was your own reactivity to the other shopper’s outburst?
Ideally, if you can take a breath or two while reminding yourself to pause and wait to calm down before responding, you may find that no response is actually necessary. In fact, in the time that first breath takes you, the person may already have moved on.
3. Give yourself permission to NOT respond.
Breath + compassionate witnessing + waiting to respond (or not) = a constructive way to deal with the stress of emotional contagion.
If you don’t have anything nice to say…because if you say it, you will add fuel to the fire.
4. Give yourself a break or otherwise remove yourself from the situation.
When you’re watching television or surfing the internet and find yourself riled up, it’s easy enough to pull the plug. With a stranger in a public place, it’s usually easy enough to just walk away.
But if removing yourself isn’t an option, at least not immediately, then follow the other tips above until you can extricate yourself.
So, the next time you feel your emotions rising to meet someone else’s, remind yourself that you are only responsible for your own reactions. Then, be sure to ask yourself the following questions before determining how to respond:
- Am I neutrally witnessing this person’s reaction to stress?
- Have I paused and given myself time to breathe?
- Is my best option to not respond? (At least, not yet.)
- Is there any reason I can’t extricate myself?
Take good care : )