Some days I think bad moods are more highly contagious than the flu. Sitting in stalled traffic on our morning commute, one driver honks and surges forward in frustration. Those around him start driving more aggressively as well. In classes or meetings, I sense the frustration of people around me and find myself growing impatient and edgy, too. Then I come home to the swirling feelings of tired little kids who are hungry for dinner and wiggly because they haven’t had enough outdoor play time. And I know I’m in for a highly contagious bout of bad feelings!
Because our brains are wired to detect emotional signals at an unconscious level, we may experience other people’s emotions as if they were our own. You may be especially susceptible to catching other people’s feelings if you spend a great deal of time around frustrated, unhappy or generally grouchy individuals. For example:
- Do you deal with disgruntled customers or unhappy employees as part of your job? Can you feel your patience and positivity diminish as the day goes on?
- Do your kids whine and throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want? Are you tempted to throw a tantrum of your own in response?
- Is your spouse depressed or frequently angry? Do you mirror these feelings in a way that magnifies them for both of you?
When you’re caught up in others’ bad feelings, you may act on them even without knowing you are doing so. Some likely results include snapping in frustration, dwelling on sad details, and responding with insensitivity to others’ feelings. Unfortunately, these responses don’t help other people manage their moods or help you break free from the cycle of bad feelings. Instead, they suck everyone down into deeper desperation.
To break the bad-mood cycle, you need to take a step back mentally and reset your mood. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Read something funny. A little levity can be a lifesaver if you’re constantly bombarded by negativity.
See if this one makes you grin:
The lifeguard walked over to a young boy’s mom to address a problem: “Please make your son stop urinating in the pool,” he said. Feeling immediately defensive, the mom replied, “Everyone knows young children urinate in a pool from time to time.”
“Oh really?” said the lifeguard. “Do they usually do it from the diving board!?!?”
2. Pay attention to your self-talk. You may be telling yourself things that increase your bad feelings. Make a conscious effort to talk to yourself with the same compassion and patience you would extend to a good friend. Telling yourself to “just get over it” will only make you feel worse.
3. Move out. Literally. Go outside for some fresh air and a change of scenery, even if you have to put on a parka, hat and snow boots to do it. Studies show outdoor exercise gives a bigger mood boost than indoor workouts.
Do you use other strategies to keep yourself from catching and spreading contagious emotions? If so, what are they? Share your tips in the comments. We could all use a buoy when bad feelings drown out the good ones.