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Catch the Vibe

You’re feeling a little blue when suddenly you spot kids playing with their dog, and giggling like mad. You smile. Somebody’s crying on the nightly news and you tear up. Or a friend is laughing for unknown reasons and suddenly you’re laughing too– no clue why, and who cares?  

We all “catch” feelings. Evolution has hardwired us that way so we can be in touch and in tune with one another’s feelings. It’s helped us adapt and connect as humans, for better and sometimes for worse.   

Amy Hawthorne, MS, LMFT, Director of Life Management in Tucson, answers common questions about this phenomenon:  

Q: Catching feelings?! Can you really “catch” a feeling from someone else? 

A: The long and short of it is, yes – emotions are contagious. In fact, studies on “Social Contagion Theory” has produced strong evidence to support it. The research can be broken down into two major areas: behavioral contagion (the spread of behaviors through populations by simple exposure) and emotional contagion (the spread of mood and affect through populations by simple exposure).  

Q: So what’s the difference between the two? 

A: Behavioral contagion can be summarized with this common example: Think of a group of preschool children. No one has to use the bathroom until one of them needs to – then suddenly they all do.   

Emotional contagion is important to be mindful of during stressful times. When you encounter someone who is panicked, it affects your own mood. Consider what’s occurred in grocery stores. At home, you make your usual shopping list, and you feel fine about going to your familiar market. But you enter the store and instantly feel the tension around. Your heart races, your list of items leaves your mind and, to some degree, you’re “infected” by the panic around you. Many people simply describe this as “the energy” they felt in the store.   

Q: Is something actually happening in my body and brain to make this shift?

A: As this phenomenon occurs, a few important things are happening in your brain. First and foremost, as you encounter other people’s panic, for example, your own prefrontal cortex (PFC) essentially shuts down and your stress center, or amygdala, is activated. This sets off a cascade effect in your central nervous system. That’s important because your PFC is in charge of executive functioning – including the ability to be rational, plan ahead, retain information, curb impulses, exercise compassion and empathy, and so much more. As stress takes over, we lose our calm, rational thoughts.   

Because we’re wired to be social creatures who can function as a group, feeling each other’s emotions is an adaptive skill we evolved over many years in order to survive. However, experiencing this at the grocery store in 2020, is not adaptive in a positive way. In our modern dense population, it can cause a “pandemic” of its own based on fear and panic.  

Q:  I want to help effect positive change. What can I do?   

A: You already have a profound impact on every person you encounter – especially those closest to you. The best and most powerful thing you can do for everyone is to take care of yourself.    

The easiest, most effective way to get your PFC up and functioning again is to practice mindfulness. An immediate way to do this is mindful breathing. That’s when you stop, take deep deliberate breaths, and focus on nothing else but those breaths. As your mind wanders, which it will, simply refocus on the experience of breathing. It’s that simple – but the result is anything but. As soon as you start, you trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response. It’s as if you’ve taken your foot off the gas of a car doing 100 mph. In fact, it’s so powerful, people often report immediate relief from their anxiety. Once your parasympathetic nervous system is in control, your PFC is back online, and you can spread the calm, not the panic. Enjoy being in the driver’s seat!  

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