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Are You Catching Other People’s Emotions?


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By Stacey Colino for US News and World Report

If you’ve ever felt as though you caught a co-worker’s or family member’s mood, it probably wasn’t your imagination. Emotions can be transmitted more easily than colds or flus – faster than the blink of an eye!

Research has found that upbeat emotions such as enthusiasm and joy, as well as negative ones, including sadness, fear and anger, are easily passed from person to person, often without either party’s realizing it. Emotional contagion occurs in a matter of milliseconds, and it depends on an incredibly basic, even primitive, instinct: During conversation, human beings naturally tend to mimic their companion’s facial expressions, posture, body language and speech rhythms, without being consciously aware of it, explains John T. Cacioppo, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

When it comes to this monkey-see-monkey-do dynamic, “the more expressive someone is, the more likely you are to notice that expression and mimic it,” Cacioppo says. “The muscle fibers in your face and body can be activated unbeknownst to you, at much lower levels than if you were to perform those movements yourself.” Those incremental muscle movements then trigger the actual feeling in the brain by causing mirror neurons – “a specific group of brain cells that are capable of [providing the basis for] empathy and compassion,” explains Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA and author of “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life” – to fire, conjuring up the emotion as if you were experiencing it naturally.


Generally, people don’t mind getting swept up in another person’s excitement, enthusiasm or good cheer. “That’s why it’s important to choose positive people [to be around] – it’s good medicine,” Orloff says.

On the other hand, few of us want to soak up someone else’s unpleasant moods or negativity as if we were sponges. Fortunately, there are ways to guard against that transmission. To that end, it can help to:

1. Trace the emotion to its original source. “You might ask yourself, ‘Am I feeling sad naturally or because I’ve been around people who are feeling sad?’” Cacioppo suggests. Recognizing whom the emotion rightfully belongs to can help short-circuit its transmission.

2. Manipulate your body language. Since emotions are often caught by mimicking other people’s facial expressions and body language, try to keep a neutral expression on your face and a relaxed posture when you’re with someone who is tense or angry, Cacioppo says. It can also help to avoid eye contact, Orloff adds.

3. Recognize your limits. When you sense that you’re absorbing too much anxiety, sadness, irritability or negativity from someone else, “notice it, but don’t panic,” Orloff advises. Instead, breathe deeply, focusing on exhaling the negativity. “Or visualize an invisible shield going up around you so that only positive emotions can come in, and negative emotions bounce off,” Orloff suggests.

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