Emotions Are Contagious

Emotions are highly contagious, and we can catch them just as quickly as we can ‘catch a cold’. Research shows that 15 to 20 percent of our emotional state at any given time is a consequence of the emotional state of others.


Stress is known to be highly contagious, and like a nasty cold or flu, it can spread like wildfire. It’s believed that stress is ‘as contagious as any airborne pathogen’, and the toxicity of stress can be likened to that of second-hand smoke. Simply observing someone who is under a lot of stress can trigger stress in us, resulting in higher levels of cortisol pumping through our bodies. One stress head in the office can infect the whole company. And when we ‘take our work stress home’, then we’re likely to contaminate the entire family. A Swedish study finds that even our pets are at risk of picking up our stress.

Emotional Contagion

Studies show that emotional contagion is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. According to researcher Nicholas A. Christakis, ‘One can think of emotions as a primitive form of communication: it’s of use to me to notice, and copy, your fear, disgust, anger, or happiness.’ This happens in the brain through what’s known as the mirror neuron system, which is a network of cells that cause us to mirror what we see in others. The science of emotional contagion goes back to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, noted that some women seemed to transfer a form of ‘hysteria’ to one another.

If we’re observing someone having an explosive episode, our mirror neuron system copies those expressions and reproduces the same ones in us, along with the emotions that go with them. This interaction is a learned behaviour and is partially how babies learn, through imitation. We are also hard-wired to perceive threats in our environment and to communicate those threats quickly to others. It’s entirely unconscious, meaning we do it without being aware that we’re doing it. It’s how our species has survived.

Changing The Data

We take on another person’s emotion mainly by mirroring their facial expressions. What we’re observing in them becomes the data feeding our brain; we are likely to feel how they feel. But we can easily override this by taking our awareness off them and onto ourselves. It helps if we avert our gaze, this means we’re no longer looking at their facial expressions. Making purposeful facial movements, such as stimulating the area around our eyes and mouth, helps break the emotional energy connection. This way, what we’re doing facially, becomes the new data feeding into our brain. While we may need to be discrete if we’re in their company, we can always mimic a yawn or an eye rub or remove ourselves and give our face a few minutes of gentle, soothing facial massage.

Three Simple Steps To Break The Connection

To break the emotional energy connection, we simply notice what’s happening and do something that will help override it. And to do this, we need to be aware of how we’re feeling.

If you’re aware you’re catching an emotion, three simple steps help stop it.

  1. Avert your gaze from the person and take your focus onto yourself.
  2. Purposefully move your facial muscles, especially around the eyes and mouth. This helps override any emotion you may have taken on and will change the signals to your brain.
  3. Breathe and centre yourself.

Releasing Stress

It helps if we can find ways to release our stress. Stanford physiologist Robert Sapolsky says, ‘Numerous psycho-endocrine studies show that in a stressful or frustrating circumstance, the magnitude of the subsequent stress-response is decreased if the organism is provided with an outlet for frustration.’ And while the stress response is involuntary, the relaxation response requires practice. For all the sensitive types and empaths out there, don’t let this phase you because these mirror neurons don’t just work on the negative emotions; they work on the positive ones too. If stress is contagious, so too is joy and happiness.

Picking Up Pleasure

Research shows we can pick up someone’s pleasure just by watching someone else watching the happy person (it’s a bit like having a happiness middleman), meaning our happy moods can affect people we don’t even know; equally, theirs can affect ours. All of this happens without our awareness. Our brains resonate with positive emotions as a form of positive empathy; this builds our resilience, so the off-days don’t knock us off our feet. Instead, we have a reserve of ‘feel-good’ energy to boost us when we need it most. Positive empathy experienced this way leads to greater health and well-being, greater life satisfaction, more peace of mind and helps create a natural propensity for happiness.

Focusing On The Good

Sometimes stress can give us the impetus to get moving on a project or helpful in dealing with a challenging situation. Stress has become so prevalent in our lives that we don’t even realise how much it affects us. Dealing with our stress in the first place will prevent the spread to unsuspecting colleagues, family and friends. We effectively intercept the physiological stress response that drains and damages our systems when we consciously focus on a core heart feeling over a negative feeling. When we’re engaged with our hearts, the mind slows down and our thoughts become more rational and focused. Instead, we stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal and repair itself. Research shows that gratitude helps us switch from a negative feeling to a positive one.

Catching Joy And Happiness

It helps if we can focus on the feel-good energy. Instead of finding ways of becoming immune to other people’s stress, it helps if we can find ways to increase our susceptibility to catching their joy and happiness. We can do this in a number of ways:

  • Practicing gratitude
  • Looking at the bright side of life
  • Witnessing the good in others
  • Celebrating other people’s happiness
  • Sharing our good times
  • Being open to receiving from others
  • Playing with children or watching children play
  • Doing things that are pleasurable


For those of us who practice mindfulness, when we’re in the company of someone who’s stressed, and we’re able to maintain a calm, peaceful presence, regardless of the chaos going on around us, then our calm presence will help ease the situation. Instead of being taxed and depleted, our cognitive and emotional systems are renewed. We’re then better equipped to ward-off future’ energy drains’ like stress, anger, and anxiety before they take hold. This is a wonderful tool to use in helping maintain healthy relationships. It also helps develop close bonds of trust and love.

Body Maintenance

We must look after our bodies, especially when dealing with stressful situations. Exercise is important. Moving our body is a great way to release the energy mobilised by the fight-or-flight stress response. Walking, running, exercising, dancing, rebounding, Tai Chi, or martial arts, are all great ways to get our energy flowing.

Breathing is a wonderfully quick way to get our bodies back to a state of equilibrium. A well-researched method of breathing is the 4-7-8 method. Simply place one hand on our belly and the other hand on our chest. Breathe in deeply from the belly while silently counting to four. Hold this breath for a count of seven. Then breathe out fully, silently counting to eight. Repeat for several rounds. Doing so will help us feel calmer and more present.

Eating healthy and staying rehydrated is another excellent way to help support the body in its healing process.

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