Emotions are Catchy: Managing Emotional Overload during Stressful Times

“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” -Etty Hillesum

Have you ever noticed that if you are hanging out with happy people, you often “catch” their mood and become happier, too? Or conversely, you start out in a great mood, then after some time with a grumpy colleague or friend who is negative, your own spirits tank to some degree? You’re feeling good at work until your grumbling co-worker comes in, complaining and criticizing endlessly – soon, you’re doing it too. On the flip-side, perhaps you’ve felt your sad, anxious, or lonely mood lift when your kids or significant other comes home, laughing happy and upbeat. That’s because emotions are contagious!

“Emotional contagion”.  Sounds serious, doesn’t it?? Simply put, it is a term specialists use when emotions “spread” from person to person, influencing the moods and behaviors of others. “Second-hand Stress or Depression.” Sounds like it should be part of a warning system on something – like the Canadian cigarette packs of today. Research in other fields is beginning to suggest that, like cigarette smoke, secondhand stress may be more harmful than we’d realized. (Second-Hand Stress)

Generally speaking, the people most likely to cause you secondhand stress or depression are those closest to you — your spouse, kids, parents, co-workers that you see every day — since their problems have direct, as well as indirect, impacts on you.The more you identify with a person, the closer you are to them, the more likely you are to catch the emotion. Most of the time, we are not even aware it is happening. As we develop our personal self-awareness, we can become adept at recognizing it sooner.

Personally, I came to a conscious awareness of how deeply second-hand stress and depression was affecting me when I have a catastrophic technical break-down that forced me to change up my daily routine for a bit. Workplace stress and staff cutbacks had created a very depressing and stressed atmosphere that was affecting me, making me feel unmotivated, disengaged, tired, and frustrated – but it was compounded by some family health issues with depression and anxiety at home. After the technical breakdown forced me have to go into the office daily for a week, rather than my usual working from home accommodation for my health, I was anticipating that I would become even more stressed, fatigued, and demotivated. Interestingly enough – that did not happen. After 2 days at the office, surrounded by colleagues who have a naturally positive outlook and approach similar to mine, my mood lifted greatly. My work stress, while still there, felt lighter. Physically, yes – I was exhausted. But emotionally and mentally – I was jazzed.

So what happened?? Well – it was a combination of things. Firstly, at home, I was in the daily presence of my significant other who was going through a personal crisis and dealing with resultant clinical depression. Secondly, at work, two close colleagues who work with me took advantage of the fact that I was on site, and we spent a lot of time working together and getting things done (amidst a lot of laughter and goofiness) that might otherwise have taken longer remotely. So, basically – there had been an on-going drain on my emotional energy, and not enough positive re-filling. The change in my daily routine allowed me to recognize clearly what was happening – I was emotionally overloaded, and not all the emotional overload originated within me. Subsequently, I have made some changes (mostly in my own attitude) and my stress levels and mood are much better!

So how can we stop from catching someone else’s negative emotions – the “carriers”? Conversely, how can we recognise when we, ourselves, are the emotional contagion carriers?

Developing emotional awareness (source: gaiam.com)

  • Notice and name your emotions. Stop and spend a few minutes experiencing the emotions in your body. Notice what you’re feeling physically and then name the emotion. Don’t judge what you’re feeling, or change it. Just learn to recognize it.
  • Figure out where your mood is coming from. If you’re experiencing powerful emotions, like anger, consider where the emotional energy is coming from. Could it be residual emotion from a mood you were infected with hours ago? Identifying where your mood originates — for example, a sad mood could be a result of spending the day with a depressed friend — can keep us from misdirecting our emotions later.
  • Raise the feeling. Take time before any interaction to tune in to your emotions and shift them in a more positive direction. Try a quick gratitude exercise. Or set an intention for a patient, kind interaction with the person you’ll soon be meeting. Do something to generate good feelings or temper the bad ones so you have something positive to share.
  • Practice non-attachment. Meditate or do yoga to reduce the stress levels. Acknowledge where you are without judgment. Acknowledge what is yours, and what may not originate with you. Let go of what is not yours. Simply observe what is yours without condemnation.

Keep that in mind that the Holiday Season stresses build with the approaching festivities. The Holiday Season can be an especially stressful time, especially for those of us balancing holiday commitments and personal energy issues as a result of managing chronic illness.

When you keep in mind that emotional contagion is always at work at some level or another, positive or negative, you can automatically diffuse its power and become more aware of the emotions you’re both experiencing and sharing with the world.

“Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” -Hermann Hesse

Namaste y’all!

Carolyne