Are you emotionally contagious?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Omicron’s not the only thing in the air: Our emotions have us in coughing fits, and social distancing or not, people are catching all the variants.

Emotional contagion, the phenomenon of emotions spreading from one person to another, can be a liability or a benefit. It’s a benefit when the environment is full of emotions helpful to our purposes, or when we can manage our own emotions and use them to connect to and/or motivate someone else. It’s a liability when we unwittingly “catch” unhelpful emotions and/or unconsciously spread them.

The first step to (self-sustained) change is awareness, and whether or not you buy the theory hook, line and sinker I think a useful model for cultivating awareness of different emotional tones is polyvagal theory. This model basically describes a range of nervous system function and associated emotions from ecstasy to freeze-inducing-fear. We can be at a different place on the curve of emotional arousal at any given time, as shown below.

Considering emotions as basic survival mechanisms supports compassion and allows us to manage and leverage them flexibly (in ourselves and others).

Leaders can harness the benefits of emotional contagion by determining which emotions will most support group outcomes, checking in with themselves for an honest read regularly and developing stellar self-regulation (this includes releasing unhelpful emotions, and tapping into more helpful emotions on demand).

This isn’t about denying your humanity or manipulating people to feel something they don’t. It’s about healthy emotional hygiene and healthy impact. Emotions are created: From our experiences, perceptions, stories, habits and goals. Like much of what’s transmitted socially, they’re interpretation as much as fact.

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Casey Onder, PhD

Psychologist, success coach, believer in solid behavioral science and the power of tuning in.