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Emotional Contagion And Physical Proximity

Image of black dog and white dog laying on a shag carpet. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, emotional contagion, Katherine Broadway

Last week, we started putting words to a concept that makes inherent sense: the idea that emotions are contagious. We talked about how our brains fall into the manner of copying the feelings and expressions of those to whom we are emotionally close. Today, we're going a step farther.

Physical proximity can also affect our mood and behavior. Social psychologists found that putting motivated people next to highly motivated people increased motivation and improved performance. Conversely, it was found that when office workers were seated next to unmotivated officemates, their performance went down, even when they were working on different task and there was no verbal interaction. Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University explains, “We are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems.”

Basically, our primitive emotional contagion response that we discussed last week automatically mimics facial expressions postures and movements. This explains one of the ways the emotions of those around us get induced within us. Does this mean we are have to be at the mercy of everyone else moods? It is not easy but there are things we can do to protect ourselves.

  • Choose your company. It is not necessary to spend social one-on-one time with people who are negative, angry or bring you down. Choose people who make you feel good, reinforce your strengths and bring out your best qualities. This is not about finding “Pollyanna” types with whom to spend your time; it is about finding balanced people with whom you can be honest and real.

  • What if you have no choice? The person exuding the negativity is a family member or close friend? Talk to them and find out what is happening in their life to create their mood. Suggest physical activities such as walking or bike riding. Do things which will lift both of your moods. Remember, you can rub off on their moods just like they can rub off on you.

  • Get off auto-pilot. Emotional contagion happens fastest when we are on auto-pilot. Be self aware and notice your moods and how they shift. Take responsibility in the moment for how you are feeling. Check out how the other person is feeling so you can clarify who is feeling what.

There is the other side of the coin. We can cause others to catch our moods as well. There are things we can do so we don't contaminate others with our bad moods.

  • Pay attention to the basics. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise and have meaningful and enjoyable people and activities in your life. Having a sense of purpose goes a long way in creating a happy life.

  • Check yourself. You may think that being in a bad mood is your personal business and does not impact others, but as we've seen here, it actually does. Consider the real impact your behavior has on others. It pushes people away, invites criticism and conflict and in some cases, causes pain to those closest to you. Make an effort to put aside your moodiness when with other people.

  • Raise your self awareness. Take steps to increase your satisfaction with life. Ask those around you if you are gloomy, angry or sad more often than not.

  • Take time out. If you know you are irritable or will be unpleasant company. Let those close to you know that you are taking some time to find out what is bothering you and are that you are finding a way to meet your needs, so that you will be a positive companion.

  • Cultivate positive contagion. Happiness can be caught just as negative emotions can be caught. Find ways to improve your moods. I have a colleague who reads funny stories during her breaks at work. She says it helps clear her mind and brightens her mood.

Repeatedly catching negative emotions from the people in our lives creates confusion and interferes with intimacy and the health of the relationship. We cannot change the feelings and behavior of another adult. Constantly, trying

to do so causes anxiety, fear and resentment. This, too, will have a negative impact on your relationships.

It is important to be honest and direct, talk to the person and make explicit what is occurring underneath the surface. Ask for what you want and need, offer the help you can give and if all else fails, find fun things to do with people

who have a positive frame of mind.

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