According to The American psychoanalyst Gerald Schoenwolf, emotional contagion is “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behaviour of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behaviour attitudes.”
Have you ever noticed that moods or emotions are contagious?
Emotional contagion has been linked to empathy as it is the tendency to feel and express emotions similar to and influenced by those of others.
Many of my clients identify as empathic. Many of them notice that after they have spent time with me working on their mindset, shifting their consciousness, perception or perspective, it can be hard to stay in an emotionally high vibe place.
After raising their vibration, they go and spend time with their Debbie Downer friends, colleagues or family and end up feeling despondent or negative again.
This is perfectly normal, in fact one could say that it is a scientific phenomenon.
We are primed to mimic what we observe.
We learn through imitation.
We learn faster when emotion is involved. Emotion is a powerful catalytic energy. Turning UP the emotion is turning up the pace.
As babies we learn by mimicking behaviour and language.
Have you ever noticed a toddler coming out with phrases or body language identical to that being displayed by those with which it shares emotional bonds?
Have you ever noticed that you start talking with an accent when you visit a place or your familial accent gets really strong when you’re home for a weekend?
Or maybe the vibe of a place you’re visiting has you buying gifts or wearing clothes that just don’t match the mood back home?
It’s all about the mirror neurons.
In the early nineties, Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese and some of their colleagues in Italy discovered mirror neurons. They found these neurons in the frontal lobes of the brain, among what were originally found as motor command neurons.
Motor command neurons are neurons which fire when we are using our motor skills. When I reach out and grab a peanut, a set of motor neurons fire. When I reach out and pull a lever another set of neurons fire. When I’m pushing something other neurons are doing their job, and again when I’m hitting something. These are regular motor command neurons, orchestrating a sequence of muscle twitches that allow me to reach out and grab something or do some other action.
What the Italian’s found when they observed monkeys (and later humans) is that a subset of these neurons also fire when I simply watch another person engage their motor neurons. So when I watch you reach out and pull a lever, a subset of neurons fire in my brain as if I am doing it.
It’s like they’re performing a virtual reality simulation in my mind.
Our Motor Neuron System (MNS) records every detail of peoples facial expression, body language, pupil movement, vocal tones, and then mirror neurons in us activate and reflect.
Yawning is a great example of mirror neurons.
Whilst studies into the full extent of of the mirror neuron system are still in their infancy relatively speaking, there is evidence that mirror neurons also exists in emotional areas of the brain.
So emotional contagion is us mirroring and reflecting the emotions we see displayed around us.
This emotional contagion comes from a time before language when sensing fear in our tribe members and catching that emotion allowed us to survive potential danger.
Emotional contagion fosters emotional synchrony.
It allows to be part of the tribe and feel a real sense of emotional connection to those around us.
Our need to belong and feel love and connection means that we literally become like the people we are surrounded by or spend our time with.
I believe that this is echoed not just in our mannerisms and emotions but also in our beliefs and and interpretation of circumstances and story.
Emotional Contagion is the result of our own and others’ interpretations of thoughts and feelings.
Our thoughts, feelings and beliefs are not set in stone, or merely mimicry. We can change our interpretation of thoughts and feelings. By shifting our perspective or our state with therapy, coaching or healing modalities, we are able to be at cause rather than effect. In other words, we are able to change our thoughts and feelings consciously.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) makes sense of overwhelming problems by breaking them down into five areas that are interconnected and affecting each other.
It works on the premise that when we change our thinking, we change our feelings, which enables us to change our behaviour.
A lot of the work I do with my clients raises awareness through curiosity and examination of facts versus beliefs. Firstly with cognitive curiosity, (examining the things we think) and then behavioural curiosity (examining the things we do,) we consciously reframe the thinking and then change the behaviour.
Feelings are not facts. We can change our feelings by changing our environment and our thinking…
By increasing emotional intelligence or emotional cognition we are able to choose and alter our mood by changing our state and our thinking.
Emotion = a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships. It is instinctive or intuitive (as distinguished from reasoned or fact based.)
Cognition = acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.
Emotional Cognition then is knowledge acquired through paying attention to our feelings.
Raising our awareness is step one in empowering ourselves.
Choosing who we hang out with and making choices about our environment is also crucial.
Should we avoid people who are negative?
Empaths or highly sensitive people are highly sensitive to emotional contagion and need to be mindful of who they are letting infect them.
You don’t need to avoid negativity completely (that’s just not realistic or healthy) but you can control what you catch by being compassionate to the feelings of others and remaining aware of emotional contagion.
Compassion allows you to sense how the person feels, to empathize and appreciate their pain, so that they feel listened to, without taking it on or synchronising with them.
Increasing our emotional set point is also vital.
Create a high vibe emotional set point
An emotional set point or the set point for happiness is a psychological term that describes our general level of happiness. According to set point theory our set point for happiness is based on our genetics and conditioning. While we may have emotional ups and downs throughout our lives, these are temporary. No matter what life throws at us, over time, our happiness bounces back to the same set point.
Having spent years increasing and cultivating a higher set point, and watching many of my peers and colleagues do the same, I have evidence to believe that we can recondition ourselves and alter our emotional set point.