Have you ever felt totally drained after spending time with certain people, whether at work or even in your personal life?
I think we’ve all had those times… when we feel we’re literally soaking up the negative emotions of certain people around us.
It’s called Emotional Contagion. Just as you can catch a cold by hanging out with someone who has one, so you can actually catch emotion too.
In the brain, we have an interconnected network of cells known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS for short). It causes us to mirror the facial expressions, body movements, and gestures of others as they express their emotions. In the presence of someone expressing negative emotion, then, your MNS mirrors the movements of their facial muscles that are conveying those emotions.
The trouble is, your MNS stimulates your facial muscles in the same way as theirs (thus, ‘Mirror’), hence you frown when they frown, tense when they tense, even without realising it. This also causes you to mirror much of their emotional brain chemistry too (see graphic at end of blog). As a result, even though you tend not to notice, your facial muscles move like theirs and you swiftly begin to feel how they feel.
But herein lies the secret to deflecting unwanted emotion. The primary gateway for catching emotion is the face. That’s because we’ve evolved over hundreds of millions of years to look at a person’s face to understand them. So the key to deflecting negative emotion is to prevent the mirroring from taking place.
The trick is to interrupt the natural process of unconscious mirroring. It’s a simple 3-step process. Here’s what to do:
Step 1: Awareness.
The key is to simply notice that you’re catching negative emotion through emotional contagion. Only with awareness of what’s happening can you stop it.
Step 2: Move your facial muscles differently.
The MNS causes you to mirror their facial muscle movements, so simply do something else with your face. It helps to actually stretch your facial muscles, but of course that’s not always an option, especially if you’re at a meeting at work. But simply massaging the corrugator supercilli muscle (the one between your eyes) helps, as well as the orbicularis oculi (the one at the side of your eyes). Stretching your mouth wide open helps too. It’s all about interrupting the flow of negative emotional data from the facial muscles to the brain and sending different data to the brain instead.
Step 3: Adjust your posture.
Sit or stand up straight, straighten your back, and breathe comfortably from your diaphragm. This lets your brain know that you’re confident and in control. Your brain will adjust your biology to reflect this.
Step 4: Patience.
So long as you’re doing this, negative emotion will gradually be replaced with positive emotion. It can take a few minutes sometimes so just keep your attention on your face, your posture, and your breathing in the meantime.
Of course, we don’t just catch ‘t negative emotion. Emotional contagion works with positive emotion in the exact same way. It’s why you tend to feel good around people who are happy.
The graphic below, in fact, shows how emotional contagion works for catching happiness.
Oh, and just before I finish this blog, you don’t just catch emotion from others, you transmit emotion too. Other people catch what you’re feeling. So if you want to help some others to be happier, one of the best ways is therefore to work on your own happiness.
Then they will catch it from you.
Copyright 2021 David R. Hamilton PhD.