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Have You Caught an ‘Emotional Virus’?

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Have you ever found yourself suddenly ill at ease? You might feel flustered or agitated. Your heart starts to race, or you catch yourself darting toward the door or to the kitchen to do some mindless comfort eating.

The next time this happens, reflect and ask yourself:

  • Who is in the room with me?
  • Who did I just talk with?
  • What did I just experience?
  • What’s going on around me?

Negative emotions from the people around us — including fear, worry, anxiety, and stress — pass from one person to another quickly, often with few or no words, like a highly contagious virus.

If you spend an evening, for instance, social distancing outdoors with stressed-out neighbors who are drinking heavily, do you have a hard time keeping your own drinking in check? Does your workday start out productive but end up derailed from a snarky colleague’s endless rants? If you’re volunteering in your community, do you come home feeling de-energized after being pelted with committee members’ countless complaints?

Even our physical health and our susceptibility to medical diseases are related to the company we keep. What we eat, how much we sleep, how sedentary we are, and how much exercise we get is strongly influenced by the people we choose to associate with.

But why, exactly, does all of this happen?

It’s all in the way we’re hardwired.

The human brain has evolved over many thousands of years to pick up any and all potential threats and negative feelings expressed by those nearby. Neurobiologist Dr. Charles Stevens, a nationally recognized expert at the Salk Institute’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory in California, told us, “There’s a neural basis for how we share emotions. Cells in our brain will fire in the same way as the nervous system that we’re watching. Our nervous systems respond similarly. They’re linked — they mirror each other — to whomever we are observing and close to.”

As if tethered by invisible cords, we’re wired to replicate the moods of others — including worry, anxiety, and sadness — just by being in the same room. The positive moods of others are just as easily replicated.

Other research shows that moods can spread among networks of people like a social contagion. Sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and political scientist James Fowler of UC San Diego looked at data from a 20-year study that included information on the social networks of 4,739 people.

Called the Framingham Heart Study, the research followed people from 1983 to 2003. The results were startling: On average, they found that for every happy friend in your social network, your own chance of being happy rises by 9 percent. For every one unhappy friend, your chance of being happy decreases by 7 percent. Happiness — as well as unhappiness — was essentially spread and shared.

Three ways to manage your reactions:

The good news is that, with practice, you’ll become better at detecting — and then avoiding or managing your reaction to — the people around you who are frequently swimming in their own private thoughts or negative states of mind. Conversely, you’ll also be able to better detect those people who lift your spirits and support your goals and move to secure close relationships with them.

Here are three ways to start:

1. Get comfortable saying no. You’re not obliged to give yourself over to others — not your time, not your energy, not your happiness. Give yourself permission to question or say no to situations that pull you down.

This is an especially important skill to practice around authority figures, family, and highly persuasive individuals. Saying no can be as simple as stating, “I wish I could do that, but it’s not possible for me.” Create a simple phrase and rehearse it many times before you meet up with highly demanding people.

2. Mitigate negative interactions when it’s impossible to escape them. It’s not always possible to walk away from difficult people. Workplaces are particularly challenging. You come into direct, prolonged contact with groups of people under stress. In that environment, it’s all too easy to pick up negative emotions, and this can seriously rob you of your agency.

In these situations, try this strategic psychological operations (PSYOP) technique: selectively ignore certain people, and navigate around the drama to keep your mind clear. Instead of engaging, shrug or make a lighthearted joke when coworkers become negative or competitive.

In personal situations, turn to humor. We know one couple who imagine their loud, self-absorbed in-laws as characters in a Woody Allen movie, and they encourage each other to keep talking even when these family members monopolize the conversation. It’s an amusing (and effective) way to keep negative emotions from ruining every holiday dinner.

3. Address your stressors head-on. Sometimes, the tensions we perceive as negative — and about us — have nothing to do with us at all. For example, let’s say your coworker invites you to a Zoom call in preparation for an upcoming sales meeting. He’s curt and visibly frustrated. After a few minutes, you ask, “You seem stressed. Are you concerned about our meeting?”

Your coworker releases a long, deep breath and smiles. “No,” he reassures you. He explains that he’s been juggling back-to-back meetings while homeschooling his kids, and he hasn’t had a break in what feels like ages.

It would have been easy to mistakenly attribute your coworker’s stress to yourself — or speculate that there was impending bad news related to the meeting. The takeaway? Always ask for clarification. Don’t assume that what you’re sensing is directly related to you or that it must continue. Tensions can often be defused, or disappear entirely, simply by facing them squarely.

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