Long Reads

Catching feelings? Here’s how to protect yourself from others’ negative emotions

It’s understandable if you’re struggling to stay positive in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and UK lockdown, but how can you protect yourself from catching negative feelings from those you’re closest to, as well? Here, an expert offers her advice.

As my partner thrust another dismal Covid-19 headline in my face and reminded me yet again of all the reasons I had to panic in these uncertain times, I closed my eyes, inhaled and exhaled deeply and continued to munch my latest loaf of home-baked sourdough bread

“No thanks,” I said as I turned my head away, doing my best to fend off the fear that was so quick to make its heavy presence known, like a stone in my stomach, threatening to ruin not just my breakfast but also the day ahead.

My partner suffers from pretty bad anxiety at the best of times, so I’m used to finding some sense of equilibrium in the face of his emotional distress. We’ve been together for 10 years and, if I hadn’t learned how to untangle my own emotional responses from his, my mental wellbeing would be in poor shape. Particularly now. 

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But I’m not alone in this risk of being affected by other people’s emotions. We all experience this every day, in many different ways, through a phenomenon referred to by experts as ‘emotional contagion’. This is an instinctive, social process that human beings both enjoy and fall victim to during most interactions, which has the ability to drastically change our perception and experience of the world.

In short, emotions are catching.

Emotional contagion has the wonderful capacity for shared happiness, joy and excitement.

Stemming from an ancestral need to share risk and opportunity, bond and create harmonious social communication, emotional contagion has the wonderful capacity for shared happiness, joy and excitement among many other positive effects. Just think of how infectious a loved one’s laughter is, and how their personal elation can so completely feel like your own. 

But negative emotions, like fear, anger and sadness, all of which inevitably feel more acute than ever in the midst of this global pandemic, are also readily amplified by the experience of others. In fact, it’s believed that the human brain pays more attention to, and therefore mimics, negative emotions as a survival instinct.

Non-conscious mimicry of communication cues such as movement, facial expression and posture are what starts it off. From here, your body will respond to what would appear to be your own physical cues to a situation, with reactions such as triggering a release of happy hormones, or the fight or flight response. And finally our behaviour will catch up, synchronising with the person these feelings have come from in the first place, perhaps by relaxing and laughing during a positive interaction, or becoming angry when fear takes hold. 

“We’re wired to catch and spread emotions, just like a virus,” psychologist and owner of Renoc Consulting, Karen Kwong, tells Stylist. Kwong explains that this can happen “in person, on social media, in group chats, through reading the news. And the more intense and emphatically someone expresses the emotion, the more contagious it is. Even if you’re mentally ‘healthy’, biology dictates that you will be susceptible to emotional contagion. And in some arguments, it’s suggested even more so.”

If you’re on your own, scrolling through social media or the news, it's easy to catch the negative emotions you're reading.

Thankfully, we all have some control over which emotions we choose to let in. Now that we’re living in isolation, understanding the impact of emotional contagion and how we relate to each other is vitally important for maintaining good mental health.

If you’re isolating with others, the close proximity is bound to amplify this exchange. If you’re on your own, scrolling through social media and reading the news, the potential for reverberation is the same. We can all do our bit to refrain from unloading our own anxiety onto others, perhaps by asking for permission to share our worries/pain/upset first and going about it with a means to shift your mind-set into a positive place, rather than bringing loved ones with you into the dark.

But what can we do to protect ourselves from the emotional contagion that others might be giving off? And how can we tap into the positive side of it?

How to stop other’s negative emotions affecting you during coronavirus

“If you’ve been infected with negative emotions, it’s how you process those emotions and associated thoughts that will determine whether or not you succumb to the longer term unhealthy emotions,” says Kwong.

Here are a few things you can do:

• Be mindful of where your emotions and thoughts are. If you don’t know where those are, how will you be able to tell if you’ve been infected or not? Check in with yourself regularly through mindfulness and meditation.

• Cut out or reduce access to the news, social media and whatever else might distress you. Bizarrely, negativity can be addictive, so if you feel yourself getting pulled in, make efforts to cut off access for the day or until you feel level again.

You have every right to look after yourself and not just survive but thrive in this unsettling time.

• Create healthy boundaries. If someone persists with negative emotional contagion and you’re finding that it’s affecting you badly, ask to change to subject. You have every right to look after yourself and not just survive but thrive in this unsettling time.

• Try to be positive. Watching a funny film, talking to a loved one about happy memories or just laughing are all great ways to absorb positivity emotions. Amazingly enough, you can trigger your own emotional contagion by squeezing out a big, fake laugh (even if you don’t feel like it) – once you start, your body automatically releases happy hormones and soon you’ll start laughing for real. If you can rope friends or family into doing it with you, this will be all the more effective. If you can’t, call the (free) Rise ‘n’ Shine Laughter line Monday – Friday 8am – 8.10am on: 0333 3000 310 and then enter the pin number: 55511151. You’ll then be connected to the group call. Simply take a deep breath and join in the group laughter to spread those joyous vibes.

Finally, remember that you can choose to focus your attention on positive emotions (which, as a side bonus, help to boost your immune system too!). Doing so is not only beneficial to you, but everyone around you, too.

This piece was originally published on 16 April 2020

Images: Getty, Unsplash