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Emotions Are Contagious

12 November 2019

Barbara read Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress by Shawn Achor and Michelle Geilan that confirmed via scientific research something she had always suspected: stress is contagious.

Tags: balance, barbara read, communication, happiness, mindfulness

I learned from Achor and Geilan's article, Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress, that you can catch a bad mood from someone else. “We can pick up negativity, stress, and uncertainty like secondhand smoke” just as we yawn if we see someone else yawn. Being with happy people can make you feel good and being with unhappy people can make you feel sad or angry. I wasn't surprised to learn that what you see, hear, and  even smell when you are with others can cause you to change your frame of mind.

I can walk in a room and pick up on how people are feeling. This awareness serves me well in my coaching work, but overdoing it, especially with family members, can stress me out. I think I catch emotions more easily than most. I read another article that labeled this trait “anxious empath,”  and thought to myself, "I’ve been that when I should have been mentally minding my own business and letting others solve their problems."

Achor and Geilan assert that In our world of constant contact made possible by our cell phones and computers, access to harmful emotions has been increased by “…negative comments on news articles and social media, stressed body language of financial news shows; stressed out people on our subways and planes, and open office plans where you can see everyone’s nonverbals.”

To reduce secondhand stress when you are out in public, they recommend using positive thoughts, words and actions whenever possible:

  • Surprise your co-workers. “Instead of returning a harried coworkers’ stressed nonverbals with an equally stressed grimace of your own, return it with a smile or a nod of understanding. Suddenly you have the power."
  • In his TED Talk Achor described "five positive psychology habits that help inoculate your brain against the negative mindsets of others:1) writing a 2-minute email praising someone you know; 2) writing down three things for which you’re grateful; 3) journaling about a positive experience for two minutes; 4) doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes; 5) meditating for just two minutes."

In my work and personal life, I have come up with some other techniques that have worked for me, but I'll confess they are not quite as positive as Achor and Geilan recommend:

  • Don’t respond to an unpleasant text. Just let it hang in the air as if you didn’t receive it. I think this is a better tact that sending negative words back and forth. If possible, go talk to the person who sent it. If not, talk on the phone rather than continue to text.
  • Consider walking away rather than responding if absolutely hateful words are coming at you. Pretend you didn’t hear them. Sometimes this is what I have to do because I am rendered speechless. When I have witnessed those who can come back with a quick retort, I still haven’t seen many positive results from the interchange. A calm, well-thought-out confrontation and conversation after the exchange may also help.
  • Call out negative comments. After a major layoff in my company, those of us who were left had a meeting. One woman said repeatedly, “We have to do all their work and no one cares.” After the meeting I told her, “You said that four times, and I felt much worse when we left than when we started.” She was angry with me for a while, but she stopped saying it around me and things improved.
  • Smile whenever it seems reasonable and sometimes even when it doesn’t. You don’t have to use a Cheshire cat grin—just turn the corners of your mouth up a little rather than down. Practice positive facial expressions in front of a mirror. Many years ago I was told the resting position of my face was a bit grim. I looked in the mirror, and it was true. This was long before the constant comments on social media about rbfs. A serious look is fine in the privacy of my home office, but when I leave, I get a little lilt in my step and lift up my jowls just a touch.

I’m not suggesting hard-heartedness, but all relationships need boundaries, and you don’t want to pick up someone else’s bad vibes just because you rode the elevator with them.

Don’t be surprised when you catch someone else’s pessimism. I used to be so caught off guard and rattled. Since I've learned from Achor and Geilan that scientific research has shown the contagion is real, I'm inspired to keep muscling up the needed effort to shake off the sensation. Going forward, I'll be experimenting with their more positive approach, too.

How do you deflect negative energy and spread positivity?


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