Emotional contagion: Being a "Emotional Sponge"

Empathy is a universal human ability.

When it is really missing or inadequate, as in cases of autism or psychopathy, we describe it as a serious mental illness. However, like most other human qualities, empathy may be innately stronger in some individuals. It can also be consciously or unconsciously encouraged or defended. As a result, some individuals will be highly and almost excessively empathic with others. They often describe themselves as “emotional sponges,” helplessly absorbing the feelings, both good and bad, of those around them.

Empathy is the first form of communication.

Human beings communicate through empathic connection from birth. Mothers and babies accurately read each other’s emotional communications. This ability is never lost, and we all use empathic understanding of other people’s feelings to complete and nuance what they tell us. We all know that the same words offered in a sweet or sarcastic tone can have very different emotional implications and effects.

However, we rarely think about this subliminal communication and are usually not aware of how we do it.

Anxiety and anger are the most “contagious”

While all emotions can be empathically transmitted between people, the most troublesome feelings are those of anxiety and anger.

There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

All higher animals are sensitive to environmental danger signals from those around them. An alarm signal prepares the individual for self-protective action, either fight or flight. Preparation for action includes vascular, muscular, respiratory, and endocrine responses that we then experience as the physical feelings of anxiety and tension.

Interpersonal Cue Reading: Visual and vocal changes communicate anxiety.

As far back as 1949, psychological researchers like Jurgen Reusch noted that in humans, the transmission of danger signals can be visible: sweating, awkward postures, shallow breathing, flushing, general restlessness.

There are also audible cues: voices may become loud or shrill, pitch of voice may rise or alternate between high and low arrhythmically, there may be bursts or bursts of conversation, lack of pauses, interruption of others, variations in the speed of speech. conversation. , or inappropriate laughter. The reverse image is also indicative of anxiety: breathy speech, long pauses, and the introduction of meaningless words like “ah” or “uh.”

Semantic or textual clues.

Reusch also found that when anxious conversations are transcribed, anxiety can be signaled conversationally by an increase in the number of feeling words, personal pronouns, and subjective ratings that the reader recognizes as indicators of self-concern. Anger is signaled by expressions of self-incited actions, “doing” rather than “feeling.” By comparison, a relaxed attitude is characterized by an increase in the number of concrete nouns and objective ratings.

All of these details and more are unconsciously or semi-consciously absorbed by a conversation partner or bystander and intuitively understood as signals of alarm or excitement that can then trigger anxiety or excitement in them as well.

Emotional contagion researcher Elaine Hatfield notes that humans have “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and thus to emotionally converge” (Hatfield et al. , 1992)

Mirror neurons are the basis of empathy

Recent research has uncovered a sophisticated system of “mirror neurons” in the brain. Mirror neurons sit alongside motor neurons that send movement signals to our muscles. Mirror neurons, however, fire when we observe gestures, specifically intentional gestures in others. Indeed, when we watch another person do something, we experience the gestures ourselves microscopically inward. Most of the time this doesn’t translate into action, but most of us have had the experience of swaying slightly in sympathy with the motions of a skater or skier we see on television, or of “bouncing in our seat” to urge a favourite. athlete to put more speed into a race. They are ways in which we show that we are empathically participating in the effort we see in others.

However, participation in the experience of others is not limited to copying gestures.

As I have described above, there are many “gestures” in the sense of physical and verbal changes that we observe in others that have to do with emotional states. These indications are what’s more answered by our mirror neurons and it is now suggested that this is the basis of empathy. Unfortunately, it is also the root of emotional contagion and leads to situations where a person can be subconsciously and unintentionally “captured” by the feelings of those around them.

Reducing this tension, good and bad manners

When the tension and emotional contamination are mild, it may be possible to simply shake it off or relieve it with small reactions, such as nervous laughter.

When it is stronger, a person may intuitively try to cope with this interpersonal pressure by trying to calm or reassure the other so that they stop sending signals of anxiety or anger. In this way, they behave as a good parent would when a child communicates their distress.

However, if the emotional pressure on the other is not easily relieved, a sensitive person can be drawn into a continual cycle of nurturing and comforting the other that can become exploitative or abusive.

  • An example of this could be a brother who repeatedly calls and takes out all his anxiety and tension on his sister late at night. The caller leaves the exchange feeling temporarily relieved and calm and the callee is now left tossing and turning all night worrying about his brother.

The continued experience of emotional contagion is “pernicious” and can cause harm over time.

It is one of the peculiarities of this unconscious, non-verbal form of communication that the sender is often trying to get rid of or “evacuate” feelings that he does not like to feel or think, in himself and also in others. As a result, they can be strangely unsympathetic to the moods they evoke in the recipient. They will often deny that they even have feelings of anxiety or anger and may attack their partner for showing signs of such weakness when they respond with empathic contagion.

This leaves the recipient in a difficult psychological position of assuming that they are the only one feeling so anxious, angry, or upset.

  • As a result of the denial of the other, the feelings that are evoked through emotional contagion are often not recognized as arising in the other and the recipient may try to explain away these strange and unpleasant feelings as if they were their own.
  • This leads to internal conversations in which the sensitive and receptive individual may attack themselves for always being “anxious for no reason” and worrying about their own health or mental stability.
  • Left burdened with unpleasant feelings, the recipient may seek relief from stress in unhealthy ways, such as overeating, drinking, smoking, shopping, playing video games, or other diversions.

Emotional contagion finds a hook in the recipient

“We are all more human than others”

Empathy and emotional contagion work because all human beings are susceptible to feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, and hopelessness in some circumstances. Emotional contagion rings our personal bells and makes us search within ourselves for the explanation of our unpleasant feelings.

  • The recipient of emotional contagion can sometimes even unconsciously create problems for himself because he may be driven to made up situations that justify your unexplained anxiety, depression, hopelessness, or despair.

Awareness helps.

Being aware that it is possible to empathically resonate with another person’s feelings can go a long way in preventing the worst outcomes. You can allow the sensitive person to ask, “Are these feelings really more appropriate for my partner than for me right now?”

The recognition that emotions are contagious can give you a clue as to how you can regulate your own experiences of contagion. Sometimes it can be emotionally wise to limit the time you spend in the psychological environments of people who are depressed, bitter, or angry.

In terms of emotional responses, you are in a two person camp.

Emotional contagion researcher Hatfield suggests:

“In social interaction, focusing only on oneself or only on the other can be equally blinding. Most of the information can be obtained by alternately checking one’s own reactions and observing one’s partners and, from time to time, moving to a different place.” different level of analysis to focus on what is happening in the interaction.

Easier to see from the outside

Because emotional contagion is so subtle and latches onto our own human fears, it is sometimes more easily recognized by a stranger. Talking with a trusted friend, counselor, or therapist can be a way to get the perspective you need to

regain your own perspective on the situation and stop the angsty inner talk about powerlessness or inferiority.

Emotional contagion in short bursts is a valid and powerful form of interpersonal communication.

A sensitive and conscientious individual can use it to empathetically understand another person’s real feelings in a situation and do what is necessary to reduce the other’s tension… but when it begins to attack their long-term mental and emotional balance, it’s time to learn more about it!


Reusch, J. and Prestwood, A.R., (1949). Anxiety: It is Initiation, Communication and Interpersonal Management, Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, Flight. 62 No.5, Pgs. 527-550.

E. Hatfield, JT Cacioppo, and RL Rapson, (1992) Primitive emotional contagion, Emotions and social behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology14, pp. 153-154

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