We tend to think of our feelings as our own—personal and privately held within us. But the truth is that emotions spread through our interactions with other people at home, at work, in our communities and online.
A new field of science, interpersonal neurobiology, reveals that humans are biologically designed to adopt each other’s feelings—a phenomenon called emotional contagion. We have brain cells (called mirror neurons) that activate in tandem with other people’s actions and emotions. When we see someone in physical or emotional pain, our own brain’s pain centers light up. We feel with each other—this is the foundation of empathy.
Emotional contagion can enhance our positive experiences. When we go to a concert or a sporting event, the vibe of the audience elevates the excitement. Emotional contagion can also amplify outrage—at its worst, fostering mob anger and violence. Unfortunately, negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones, so our sensitivity to each other’s feelings may weigh us down more often than it uplifts us. For example, toxic work environments are frequently driven by the negativity of a co-worker or supervisor.
As much as we might prefer to immunize ourselves against the impact of other people’s emotions, our very nature makes this impossible. The question then becomes: How do we work best in our capacity to feel with each other?
It’s important to parse out which feelings originate with you and which you are absorbing from other people. Because we think of our feelings as our own, we don’t usually see our emotions in a social context. By paying attention to how your emotions and physical sensations change during personal encounters, you can learn what’s yours and what’s coming through you from others.
Being in the presence of anger, resentment and defensiveness is difficult, because these feelings are especially provocative and can spread like wildfire. When you see someone else’s anger flare, be as mindful as possible, watching the sensations in your body as you are activated. Remind yourself, “This feeling is not mine, but it’s normal that it affects me.” Breathe. Step away if possible. Your body is designed to feel this so you’re aware of the threats around you and can defend yourself, but acting on this defensiveness may enflame the situation further. Instead, if appropriate, repeat back to the person what they’re saying, without agreeing or disagreeing, and focus on calming your body to return to a centered emotional state.
When you’re communicating with a person who’s in pain, offer compassion. Compassion is powerful in the face of contagious emotional distress, because it reminds you that this feeling isn’t yours and allows you to hold the experience with kindness. Slow your breathing while you’re with someone who’s distraught. This not only calms your body and increases your heart rate variability (reducing stress), it can also calm the body and emotions of the person you’re with.
Finally, be intentional about spreading feelings of warmth and safety. Your smile, encouragement, expressions of gratitude, relaxed embodiment and ease can influence those around you. By spreading calm in your family, workplace and community, you can harness emotional contagion for everyone’s benefit.
Photo credit: Dan Edge