As people around the world are trying to combat the spread of COVID-19, there’s another type of contagion of which you should be aware: emotional contagion.
Put simply, emotional contagion is the process of catching the emotions of someone else. Like all things that are contagious, individuals can be both the carrier and the recipient of strong emotional reactions. If you’re in a position of power or authority (for example, a teacher, parent, or workplace leader), you’re more likely to be the carrier of contagious emotions — as people may generally look to you to be the source of guidance and support during difficult times.
As an example, think about the role that flight attendants and pilots play in maintaining a sense of calm on a flight. During turbulence, it’s pretty common for folks to look to the flight attendants to gauge their reaction. If the flight staff look calm and relaxed, it generally creates a sense of calm amongst everyone else on the flight.
It can be difficult to control intense emotions; however, it is possible to mitigate the contagion effect on those who are around you. The following steps can help you stop the spread of emotional distress:
Name Your Feelings
When emotions are particularly high, it can be a good exercise to take a step back and identify what you’re feeling. For example, if you’re feeling particularly anxious, taking a moment to say to yourself, “I’m feeling really anxious right now. I know I won’t feel that way forever and eventually this will pass,” can go a long way to calm your feelings of anxiety.
This skill can be helpful because it enables you to be aware of the emotion you’re feeling and, it also helps put into perspective that the feeling, as uncomfortable as it might be, is one that is temporary. The easiest way to prevent emotional contagion is to be aware of what you’re feeling and take steps to avoid allowing that feeling to impact those around you.
If you’re in a position of power, consider how you can model coping for those who look to you for support. For example, parents can model what they are feeling and share how they are coping with the feelings. For example, saying “Mommy is a little stressed right now because we’re out of our normal daily routine. But I’m coping with that stress by making a list of everything we need to do today.” Expressing emotions — and sharing problem-solving strategies to deal with them — can be a great way to model effective coping skills.
Stop the Spread
If you’re experiencing particularly intense emotions, take steps to avoid spreading those emotions to other people. If you’re feeling especially emotional, try writing in a journal or drawing a picture. Finding a non-human outlet into which you can channel your stress can be a good way to avoid spreading intense emotions to another person. If you’re finding yourself experiencing strong ongoing emotional reactions and you feel like it might be helpful to talk to someone, consider enlisting the help of a trained mental health professional.
These steps can help you guard against impacting others with your own strong emotional reactions. If, however, you find yourself around someone who seems to increase your emotional reactions, try to take steps to limit your exposure to that person.
Although it can be challenging to maintain emotional connection to family and friends while also taking steps to guard against an emotional contagion effect, it is possible to set boundaries and avoid being in situations that can impact your emotional well-being. Keep an eye on how you’re feeling and take a step back when you need some space to decompress and regroup.