With doctors, scientists and political leaders around the world trying to slow down the spread of COVID-19, there is another type of contagion which needs to be spoken about – “emotional contagion”.
Emotional contagion is the process of catching other people’s emotions. Whether we intend to or not, emotions both positive and negative can spread like a virus and we can become infected very quickly if our defence is low. Like all contagions, we can be either the carrier or recipient of strong emotional reactions.
We are generally unaware that we are infected by emotional contagion and the influence it has on our behaviours. We have been hard wired since infancy to automatically mimic people’s body language, facial expression and tone of voice. Through a process of physiological and neurological activity we start to feel the projected emotions we mimicked and then act upon them thinking that they are our own emotions.
Many of us have been forced into a different way of living and being since the start of this pandemic. Because of this we may be experiencing a whole new range of emotions. Attempting to adapt to constant societal and global change can be extremely difficult. We must allow ourselves to be compassionate with ourselves.
For example, if you notice fear allow yourself to feel it. We can be cognisant to the presence of fear. We should notice the space between fear and ourselves but we should not define ourselves by that fear. It is vital to remember that our emotions are feelings, not facts. In this awareness we can allow ourselves to become compassionate with ourselves.
During these times if we can notice our fear and negative emotions with compassion then we must try to ground ourselves in our values. Our values keep us centred and remind us how we want to live each day of our lives, and our values remind us what is truly important especially through this pandemic. When we allow ourselves space to go beyond the feelings of negative emotions, we give access to explore other levels of our conscious awareness. We discover that our emotions are not our identity and that they are transitory.
How to “flatten the curve” of Emotional Contagion
To prepare ourselves and to feel in control during these unprecedented times we must learn how to stem negative emotional contagion and allow positive emotions to become more infectious. Learning this will assist us to feel less frantic in our lives. Emotional contagion can easily go “viral” among interaction influencing our thoughts and actions.
Solutions to stop the Emotional Contagion
Reduce your exposure to fear-focused information – Ensure that the source of your information is reliable, verified and comes from a trusted source. Reading speculation from unreliable sources can unnecessarily exert fear and uncertainty.
Help share positivity – There are plenty of uplifting, heart-warming good news stories also available during this crisis. Try to balance the positive and negative news stories you watch and share.
We should practice good emotional hygiene every day. This includes finding time to exercise, meditate and engage in some level of volunteerism within your community if possible. These activities all create positive emotions.
To protect ourselves from emotional contagion, we must learn to calm our own nervous system. This can be achieved by deep breathing. If we consciously slow down our breath by counting the length of both the inhale and exhale this will help our nervous system move from an agitated state into a calm peaceful state. When we are calm then we can naturally influence and calm other people around us.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, described how a small, crowded boat facing storms will capsize if everyone panics, but if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do then they can help the boat to stay afloat. If that one person uses their facial expression and voice to communicate clarity and calmness, then all the people will trust them – so during this challenging time try to be the calm among the storm!
Finally, … As we move through the days and weeks of this pandemic there will be various news sources, social media content that conspires for your attention. Not only this but our loved ones, friends, family will be conspiring for our attention also. It will be very easy to get continuously embroiled in the “emotional contagion” but if you can keep this very simple antidote in your mind “Who is in charge, the thinker or the thought?” then you will escape the contagion.