You’re not imagining it: it really is possible to ‘catch’ other people’s emotions

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

Do you find yourself easily influenced by other people’s emotions? Here’s how to deal with emotional contagion.

While I was doing research for a piece at the end of last year, I discovered a term I’d never come across before: emotional contagion. The term, which refers to the idea that emotions can be transferred between people like a kind of virus, spoke to an experience I’d been curious about most of my adult life.

Suddenly, I understood why I feel so frustrated and on edge when I’m around someone who is feeling angry, or why, when I’m on a night out with my friends, I find it hard to enjoy myself if I know someone else in the group isn’t feeling it.

It’s a strange phenomenon – but one that can affect all of us. There are some groups of people who are more susceptible to this transfer of emotions (highly sensitive people are particularly affected, and women tend to experience it more than men), but for the most part, anyone can pass or ‘catch’ the emotions of the people they spend time with.  

The only problem? If you’re particularly sensitive to other people’s emotions or find yourself living and working in an emotionally charged environment, emotional contagion can be a lot to handle – so much so that it can lead to problems including emotional exhaustion and burnout.

It’s why so many people are dealing with emotional exhaustion as a result of the pandemic – after living and working in close quarters with family and friends for so long, it’s no surprise that we’re all feeling overwhelmed.

However, just because emotional contagion is an automatic process, it doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to ‘protect’ yourself from the impact of other people’s emotions. Indeed, according to the chartered psychologist, scientist and author Dr Meg Arroll, the answer is surprisingly simple. 

“When we’re stressed, or when our basic needs are not met, we can be more prone to emotional contagion – for example, you might find that people get you down or annoy you more when you’ve had a bad night’s sleep or are ‘hangry’,” Dr Arroll explains. 

“Therefore, the best way to combat some of the negative effects of emotional contagion is to take care of yourself and make sure these basics are being attended to.”

Taking care of yourself will not only help you to cope better with the pressure of other people’s emotions, but it can also have a positive impact on the people around you, too. 

Dr Arroll explains: “Taking care of ourselves is paramount for individual and group survival, as it allows you to break the negative emotional contagion [the transfer of negative emotions around the group] and turn it into something more adaptative.

“Research shows that positive emotions are more contagious than negative ones, so if you can manage and regulate your own emotions successfully, you can spread joy, hope and serenity to your social group.”

While you shouldn’t feel responsible for the emotional states of everyone you spend time with, Dr Arroll’s words are a reminder of the positive influence we can have on our friends and family – and how taking time to invest in ourselves can benefit the world around us, too.  

Image: Getty

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