Emotional Immunity: How We Catch and Spread Emotions

By Shellie Rosen, Ph.D., Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM)®, DOM, L.Ac.

The “emotional contagion” theory that humans can spread emotions and behaviors to those around them emerged in 1897. It was a philosophical and psychological explanation for social behavior until biomedical models and social neuroscience research could illustrate physiological changes within pairs or group dynamics. Organizational psychologists use the research to cultivate teams that communicate effectively and generate cohesiveness. Friends, families, and social groups can also use it to improve their social-emotional health, directly impacting their physiology through self- and other-awareness as well as stress management.

Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI scans, reveal that brain activity is, at times, directly related to the emotional states of others. Humans and animals have adaptive characteristics responsive to mimicry and hormones. Rapid motor mimicry is observable in animals that collectively transmit and copy one another’s actions to respond to a potential threat. Think of a flock of a hundred birds that respond to a stimulus simultaneously when two birds initiate a signal. Animals have heightened mimicry with those they share the most similarities with, as do humans; the more familiar a person is to us, the more we mimic them. Mimicry is a potent transmitter of emotions, and hormones are, too. Research published in the Public Library of Science in 2009 and Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in 2012 demonstrates that stress hormones (such as cortisol) are secreted and transmitted from person to person even without seeing or hearing them.

Emotional contagions affect people differently depending on their neural receptivity to others’ emotions. For example, highly empathic or emotionally sensitive individuals experience heightened neural or brain arousal when exposed to others’ emotions or hormones and struggle with dysregulation upon exposure. They sometimes isolate themselves, reducing their ability to have empathic pro-social experiences and impacts.

Second-hand emotions can manifest as physiological stress, leading to poor health. Healthcare professionals are especially vulnerable to empathic distress, and society suffers when they burn out and retreat from their field of excellence. How can each of us help emotionally safeguard our healthcare providers? Empathy is necessary to build socially cohesive networks where people care for and about one another. However, one must practice a sustainable level of empathy between self and others. Some people’s brains have low arousal from exposure to others’ pain and have low brain activity for mimicry. These individuals focus and sustain work stress well, but it can be challenging to work with them because they lack empathy. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses with empathy.

To begin your role in pro-social experiences and impacts, take inventory of yourself and consider your impact on others. Maybe your partner seems grumpy, but perhaps it began with you. Negative emotions often start a feedback loop, making it challenging to locate the initial source. Attempt positivity, but also know when to change your venue. People sometimes need the space to experience emotional states without considering another’s comfort. A smile is excellent, but it can be a band-aid without addressing stress’s physiological components communicated through stress hormones. Consider the impact your health has on those around you. It is not selfish to care for your health; it is a socially conscious action. The better you are, the better those around you will be. Making time for quiet can be healing, but, in excess, isolation can prevent social-emotional growth. Schedule time to experience emotionally positive people and learn how they generate feelings of love and positive regard. The feelings are contagious.

Abundant Blessings!

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