Can you catch an emotion?

“If someone brings you the gift of rage, irritation or resentment, you can choose not to accept it”


By Jay Scott and Mike Taigman

Yawns are contagious. Like, Omicron contagious. In a meeting, the first person to yawn starts the social mirroring process. If the first yawner is the boss, yawns will cascade around the room faster than a backyard squirrel escaping when the puppy gets out of the house.

Emotions, particularly strong emotions, pass from person to person quickly. When you catch an emotion, it will influence your thinking and possibly your actions before your conscious mind realizes that something has happened. Hatfield, et al., defined emotional contagion as “an unintentional process by which individuals detect and absorb the emotions of others.”

"When you catch an emotion, it will influence your thinking and possibly your actions before your conscious mind realizes that something has happened." (Photo/Getty Images)

Emotions are centered in the limbic system of your brain. Emotions like fear, joy, anger, happiness, guilt, sadness and more help us make sense of what is going on in the world around us. Most images of the limbic system create the illusion that it lives inside your skull.

A more realistic way to think of the limbic system is that it is relational. We are literally connected with other people on a neurobiological level.

Research shows that the open-loop nature of the limbic system results in interpersonal limbic regulation. That means that one person’s emotions can impact the blood pressure, sleep cycles, immunological response, cardiovascular functions and hormone levels of another person. Power dynamics in a relationship dictate whose limbic system has the bigger impact on the other. Parents have a bigger impact on their kids and bosses have a bigger impact on their employees. 

In the workplace, emotional contagions sometimes cause unsafe situations. Researchers in Italy studied the impact of anger in the form of performance pressure on 1,000 employees and found that it caused significant sleep disturbances, back pain and headaches. These sleep disturbances caused unsafe work performance, resulting in increased accidents and injuries. Joy and happiness are also contagious, but they have less impact on sleep and health than negative emotions do.

The reality is that we are all transmitters of our emotions and we are all receivers of the emotions of others. There are no vaccinations to prevent transmission – and while N95s make it harder to see facial expressions, the emotions still come through. Here are some strategies to make this dynamic work for you:

  • Train yourself to be in touch with your feelings moment by moment. The more nuanced the label for your emotions, the better. It’s a bit like British weather reporters, having many words to describe rain on the evening news: tipping down, drizzle, spitting, bucketing down, teeming, nice weather for ducks, the heavens have opened, downpour, sun-shower, raining sideways, drenched, deluged and pissing. Are you bored, amused, disgusted, appreciative, blissful, contented, ecstatic, hungry, calm, confident, angry, disenchanted, glum, horrified, mellow, entranced, joyful or afraid? Some people like to rate their emotional state from 1) I’m so sad that I can barely breathe, to 10) I’m so filled with joy, nothing can bring me down.

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  • If you’re feeling a negative emotion that you’d like to avoid sharing with patients, partners, triage nurses, your kids or anyone else, it’s important to have tricks to change how you’re feeling. Distract yourself by thinking of something else; take a few deep, full breaths; wiggle your toes (we know that you’re trying this one right now as you read); sing your favorite song in your head or whatever works for you.
  • Power dynamics influence the strength of emotional contagions. Parents are more likely to transmit emotions to kids than kids are to adults. The same is true of bosses to subordinates, paramedics to patients, and people with homes to people without homes. Use your empathy to notice the emotional impact you are having on others and apologize/repair where your irritation with something else rubs off on the folks you are interacting with.
  • Notice when you’re picking up emotions from others, particularly those north of you in the pecking order. One mental trick to use when you’re picking up a full-force blast of negative feelings from someone else is to imagine stepping out of the line of fire. Visualize their anger, irritation and frustration as if it were a rock thrown at your chest in slow motion. You’ve got plenty of time to do a quarter turn with your body, so the rock flies past your harmlessly. Consider the phrase: “Why is this happening for me?” rather than “Why is this happening to me?” and realize your own power to use the situation to practice emotional autonomy. Just because this person is being this way, doesn’t mean it has to ruin your mood.
  • If you’ve had a day where you feel overwhelmed by the emotions of others, one excellent way to shed those feelings is to do something physical. Walk, jog, ride a bike, play fetch with your dog, punch a heavy punching bag or go for a swim. Anything will help as long as it requires movement and it is not related to work. Try to do something for yourself every day that is not related to your job. The endorphins your brain releases when you exercise will help bring back your own positive feelings. You can achieve the same effect when you sing or play a musical instrument.
  • Lastly, there’s an old Buddhist saying, “If someone offers you a gift and you decline to accept it, to whom does the gift belong?” If someone brings you the gift of rage, irritation or resentment, you can choose not to accept it.

Working in EMS is full of emotions. Delivering a baby, dealing with an abusive intoxicated patient or a partner with marriage troubles, successfully resuscitating a patient from cardiac arrest – or not – the better we become at managing our own emotions and those of the people around us, the happier and more effective we become. 

About the author

Jay M. Scott is the executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Pre-Hospital Continuing Education (CAPCE). Jay has served his community as a paramedic for more than 35 years. He is adjunct faculty of the Dallas College Paramedic and EMT programs and is also former chair of CEBEMS, former chair of the AHA NYS Regional Emergency Cardiac Care Committee, and regional faculty for the AHA’s ACLS, PALS and CPR courses.

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