After sending off our three children to three different schools with varying start and end times my husband and I land back home for a brief encounter before running off to our jobs, commitments and responsibilities. Our interactions are brief, almost as if we are at a pit stop taking a sip of water before reentering the race. The race against the clock to see just how much we can fit in the course of the day. The exchanges we do have are typically about the kids, perhaps a bit of insight, appointments to remember, an occasional complaint or desire.
I first learned about emotional contagion several years ago when I attended a three-day workshop on depression. Since then I have been intrigued by its impact. Emotional contagion is the phenomenon that people can pick up (similar to a cold) a positive or negative emotion from others. “Studies show that emotional contagion most often occurs at a significantly less conscious level, based on automatic processes and physiological responses (e.g., Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson, 1994).” Psychology Today, Oct 15, 2014.
Since emotional contagion runs on an unconscious level one might think they have little to no control. However, as mindful tools and strategies increase, so does our ability to access the subconscious mind. This means with awareness you can actually begin to recognize and alter how you might be contributing (whether it be positive or negative) to the atmosphere in your home and workplace.
Here are some things I have noticed. First, when I spew off my frustration (even if it is brief) my husband begins to doubt his choices. For example, the other day I said, “I am not going to drive her (our daughter) in anymore, it is too stressful, she is going to have to take the bus.” His response was “I don’t think I am going to bike tonight, I probably should stay home with the kids.” In other words, when I state my frustrations my husband immediately feels guilty about taking care of himself.
The second thing I noticed is when I sense his guilt or uncertainties I immediately want to make it better. I know this because I drive away thinking, “I should really text him and let him know I am fine.” Other days, I may clam up, withdraw, and choose not to communicate with him at all. This is me, at my wits’ end, feeling unsupported and frustrated. What I have learned is none of this is really about what we did or did not do or say. It is all a sign that we have caught each other’s anxiety.
What to Do
Here are four tips I personally have tested out that can keep you from catching anxiety:
Take responsibility for the choices and energy you create. For example, I chose to drive my daughter to school. When we spew at others about our choices, we unconsciously communicate that somehow they are responsible for our low energy emotions (such as worry and frustration).
Process rather than project. Feel your emotions rather than project them into a story or belief. My story was that driving my daughter creates stress. Is that necessarily true? No. The truth is my energy was pent up in the story I was creating in my head. To keep your immunity up it is important that you go to your body. Breathe into your lower abdominal (inhale belly rises, exhale it deflates) and notice the sensations on your skin increase. These sensations loosen the grips of our stories so that we are able to respond from truths rather than illusion (fear).
Put a smile on your face. When you smile you actually release endorphins and the feel-good hormone serotonin.
Give yourself and your partner a pat on the back. Focusing on the good can go a long way.
Barsade, Sigal. Ph.D. “Faster than a Speeding Text, Emotional Contagion at Work.” Oct 15, 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-work/201410/faster-speeding-text-emotional-contagion-work