When you see someone coughing and sneezing, you know to keep your distance. What about when you see someone who is sad or moody? Emotions can spread like a cold, and you can “catch” them too.
It’s true, emotions are contagious. Studies suggest that other people’s moods may be as easy to catch as their germs. You can be infected with someone’s happiness — or sadness.
Researchers call this phenomenon emotional contagion (EC), in which one person’s emotions transfer to another. It involves all types of emotions, from angry, sad and fearful to happy, enthusiastic and joyful.
Emotions are often caught by mimicking other people's facial expressions and body language, a natural instinct which begins early in life. Studies have found that when we imitate someone’s expressions, those expressions trigger reactions in our brains that cause us to feel the same feelings.
It’s a process: seeing someone frown makes you frown, and because you frowned, you now feel sad. It happens so fast, you may not even be aware of it.
When you encounter your spouse, friend or coworker in a bad mood, you may unknowingly begin to feel unhappy as well.
What emotions are you likely to catch from others?
You can catch both positive and negative emotions:
Who is most vulnerable to emotional contagion?
Experts believe that negative emotions, like pain, fear and sadness, are more contagious than positive ones. This can be traced back to our survival instinct. Your brain pays more attention to negative emotions because it’s wired to keep you safe. Being able to catch someone’s fear could alert you to an imminent danger.
Who are you more likely to catch emotions from?
Have you ever found yourself tearing up when you see someone else crying? It is more likely to happen when the person crying is someone close to you, such as a spouse, child, parent or close friend. Emotions are more contagious between individuals who know one another well and are in frequent contact. Also, some people are more vulnerable to catching emotion, such as those who tend to be attentive and sensitive to others.
How else can emotions spread?
Emotional contagion applies to groups, too. For instance, a new boss’s bad attitude can spread quickly through a company and create a toxic environment for all. The same goes for team sports. When teams are happier, the athletes on the team tend to play better. Emotions can even spread through our digital interactions, like social networks, in which your mood is influenced by the mood of your friends, friends’ friends, and so on.
How to you protect your own emotional well-being?
When it comes to emotions, it’s much better to catch the happy “bug” than the sad one. But avoiding negative people and surrounding yourself with positive ones is easier said than done.
Awareness is key. Be aware of how other people’s emotional states are affecting you and take care of yourself when you need to. If you feel exceptionally stressed, look around you. Is your spouse always stressed at home? What about your coworkers? Does your mood lift when you’re away from someone?
The emotions you put out matter, too. Keep your own negative emotions in check and avoid negatively impacting others. Remember, your good mood can brighten a room. And, an act of kindness can stop the spread of negative contagious emotions.
Is your emotional well-being suffering? You may need some extra help. Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.
How our emotions affect our heart health
If you have reached this screen, your current device or browser is unable to access the full Edward-Elmhurst Health Web site.
To see the full site, please upgrade your browser to the most recent version of Safari, Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer. If you cannot upgrade your browser, you can remain on this site.