How to deflect negative emotion

faces of different women's emotionsHave you ever felt totally drained after spending time with certain people, whether at work or even in your personal life?

I think we’ve all had those times… when we feel we’re literally soaking up the negative emotions of certain people around us.

It’s called Emotional Contagion. Just as you can catch a cold by hanging out with someone who has one, so you can actually catch emotion too.

In the brain, we have an interconnected network of cells known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS for short). It causes us to mirror the facial expressions, body movements, and gestures of others as they express their emotions. In the presence of someone expressing negative emotion, then, your MNS mirrors the movements of their facial muscles that are conveying those emotions.

The trouble is, your MNS stimulates your facial muscles in the same way as theirs (thus, ‘Mirror’), hence you frown when they frown, tense when they tense, even without realising it. This also causes you to mirror much of their emotional brain chemistry too (see graphic at end of blog). As a result, even though you tend not to notice, your facial muscles move like theirs and you swiftly begin to feel how they feel.

But herein lies the secret to deflecting unwanted emotion. The primary gateway for catching emotion is the face. That’s because we’ve evolved over hundreds of millions of years to look at a person’s face to understand them. So the key to deflecting negative emotion is to prevent the mirroring from taking place.

The trick is to interrupt the natural process of unconscious mirroring. It’s a simple 3-step process. Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Awareness.

The key is to simply notice that you’re catching negative emotion through emotional contagion. Only with awareness of what’s happening can you stop it.

Step 2: Move your facial muscles differently.

The MNS causes you to mirror their facial muscle movements, so simply do something else with your face. It helps to actually stretch your facial muscles, but of course that’s not always an option, especially if you’re at a meeting at work. But simply massaging the corrugator supercilli muscle (the one between your eyes) helps, as well as the orbicularis oculi (the one at the side of your eyes). Stretching your mouth wide open helps too. It’s all about interrupting the flow of negative emotional data from the facial muscles to the brain and sending different data to the brain instead.

Step 3: Adjust your posture.

Sit or stand up straight, straighten your back, and breathe comfortably from your diaphragm. This lets your brain know that you’re confident and in control. Your brain will adjust your biology to reflect this.

Step 4: Patience.

So long as you’re doing this, negative emotion will gradually be replaced with positive emotion. It can take a few minutes sometimes so just keep your attention on your face, your posture, and your breathing in the meantime.

Of course, we don’t just catch ‘t negative emotion. Emotional contagion works with positive emotion in the exact same way. It’s why you tend to feel good around people who are happy.

The graphic below, in fact, shows how emotional contagion works for catching happiness.

Oh, and just before I finish this blog, you don’t just catch emotion from others, you transmit emotion too. Other people catch what you’re feeling. So if you want to help some others to be happier, one of the best ways is therefore to work on your own happiness.

Then they will catch it from you. 🙂

The 4 Components of Emotion

Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.

The diagram below shows how this is so.

4 components of emotion
Reproduced from ‘I HEART Me: The Science of Self-Love’

Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.

Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.

Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.

Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!

So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.

Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.

We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.

Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.

Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.

So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.

You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.

In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.

A simple strategy for deflecting negative emotion

In my talks I quite often explain how we catch emotion from people. It’s facilitated by an interconnected network of brain cells known as the mirror neuron system. If you’re with someone who is happy, your brain actually mirrors the activity of their smile muscles (zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi), signaling your muscles to do the same. And this feeds back into your brain, causing you to feel happier!

A few years ago, while watching my sister attempt to get food in my niece, Ellie’s’ mouth, who was just a baby at the time, the whole family were watching intently….. it had been quite an ordeal. I noticed that just as Ellie’s mouth finally opened, so too had everyone else’s’. The mirror neuron system at work!

So we can catch a person’s good mood by just hanging out with them. Of course, it’s also to do with what they say and the things they do, and also what they say to you. But the mirror neuron system plays a large role.

But what about negative emotions? Recently, while giving a business presentation called, ‘Mood Contagion in the Workplace’, I was asked how to NOT catch negative emotions.

Actually, there’s a very simple trick involved. Outside of what a person says, you catch negative emotion through mirroring activity of their facial muscles that carry negative emotion, in particular the muscle between the eyebrows (corrugator supercilli). It’s purely an unconscious process. You’re not actually trying to do it. It’s a wired reflex reaction that some psychologists refer to as the, ‘chameleon effect’. At the same time, you also mirror their body language and even the way they’re breathing.

So how do you not catch negative emotion? I think you might have figured it out already! DON’T mirror their expressions! The moment you catch yourself doing it, just stop!

What I do is I scramble my facial muscles to interrupt any flow of signals to my brain’s emotional regions through the mirror neuron system. OK, it might look fairly odd if you start to make contortions to your face, but you can always pretend you’re rubbing your eyes and do it while your hands are over your face. Or you can be subtle and just massage your currugator supercilli (just to remind you, that’s the frown muscle between your eyebrows).

Then bring your attention to your breathing. Now sit up straight and straighten your back, or stand up straight and ensure your back is straight and you’re not hunched forward. Bring your shoulders back to open your chest, and b-r-e-a-t-h-e.!!!

Keep your attention on your breathing for a few minutes while you are sporting your new body language. With your body and nervous system now conveying positive emotion and confidence, you’re sending new data into your brain’s emotional regions. It usually only takes a few seconds for a quick change in how you feel, but after a few minutes of doing it you will be feeling much better and more in control of yourself.

It works really very well and I have used it on numerous occasions.

OK, like anything, it’s not 100% effective as sometimes it matters what a person is saying to you, the intensity of the emotion on display, and also how you feel about yourself, but it does work a lot of the time so it’s definitely worth a try.

And now that you’re in a positive state you can start to infect people with your emotion. Instead of being on the receiving end of emotion you can project it out. That’s what I do!

Then you create ripples of positive emotion. It’s kinda cool!


If you want to read more, I explain the process as well as how to project positive emotion, plus many more aspects of the contagiousness of emotions, in my book, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’. To my pleasant surprise, it’s becoming quite a hit in corporations recently now that business people are finally coming to understand how the emotions of some individuals can disrupt or enhance team performance.

Here’s the links to check the book out: Amazon UKKindle UK, Kindle US


Why Empathy is Important

little boy who is sad
For some reason I’ve been having a lot of conversations about empathy recently.

Empathy has been defined in the scientific journals as ‘I feel with you‘, as distinct from compassion, which has been defined as ‘I feel for you’. With empathy, we share another’s pain and we are very aware of the effects of our actions on them. With compassion, our focus moves a little in the direction of wishing them freedom from their pain.

You can actually see the difference in the brain. Empathy lights up the insula, which is an area of the brain that connects the flow of information between the front of the brain and the emotional areas, whereas compassion sees many of the same areas lit but with the addition of the prefrontal cortex (left side), which is the area above the eyes that is involved in decision making.

US President Barack Obama spoke of the need to fill the ’empathy deficit’ in the world. On 11th August 2006, he said,

You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Empathy moves us to share in another’s pain, to really see the world through their eyes. When we do, it very often changes the kind of decisions and actions we take. When empathy is in full bloom, many things change and it does becomes almost impossible not to help.

I read an article in the UK Guardian (or it might have been The Observer) about 6 months or so ago. I wish I’d kept it but the jist of it was that something in the region of 95% of the top people in the banking sector were effectively sociopaths – people who completely lack empathy. That’s a startling statistic. It was from a psychologist’s assessment.

It means that many of the financial decisions that affect us personally and globally are devoid of empathy. In a real sense, we are viewed as statistics, numbers, profit margins, transactions. Personally, I want to be viewed as a person with feelings.

I really feel for Greeks (and Spaniards) who are being hit with extreme austerity due to the Euro crisis at the moment. As I read article after article, it pains me greatly to see the difficulties they are enduring. I find myself welling up as I read some of the personal accounts.

I’m not an economist and I really don’t understand how the financial systems of the world work, but maybe if the decision makers showed a little more empathy – actually put themselves in the shoes of those who are suffering – then decisions might be made differently. I don’t know, really. I can imagine it’s a tough job for politicians, many of whom are trying to juggle their options to make things best in the long term.

But I just can’t help feel that there’s a bit of an empathy deficit going on. Maybe that’s just my analysis, but it feels like my intuition. I wonder how things would work out if there was more empathy. I wonder what type of solutions we’d search for. I wonder if a different, better solution will emerge. I pray!

Empathy moves us to consider the actions of others when we make decisions. In difficult times, I feel that it is crucial for making the best decisions. Empathy (and compassion) might have been viewed as soft in the past, but I think having the courage to show empathy and compassion is the sign of strength. For me, it would be the sign of a leader.

In fact, in leadership terms, a leader is someone who can inspire others to help. Surely empathy is crucial for this. It is crucial, I believe, in building strong relationships. I personally think that as our world becomes more and more interconnected, and cooperation and communication become more important than ever before, then empathy is going to be the new currency for thriving.

Start today. Look at people who are suffering and try as best you can to imagine the world through their eyes.

I think that if more of us did that, then the world could be a different place. A better place. That’s my opinion anyway.

How Video Games Affect Empathy

One of the things I most enjoyed over the holiday period when I was playing on the Nintendo Wii with family members. I did some super-high scoring on bowling. Whoopeee…. I also had some long slugging-it-out tennis matches with my nephew Jake, played a few rounds of golf, and danced on ‘Just Dance’ with my mum.

I think these kinds of games help us on so many ways. Judging by the aches and pains in my arms the morning after the first night’s gaming, I felt like I’d done some serious exercise. They also help with hand-eye coordination, and many games are good for brain development.

The other side of gaming, though, is playing violent video games where we maim our opponents. A number of studies on children, teenagers, and college students show that these kinds of games can affect behaviour, making the players more aggressive and less empathetic in the short and long-term.

In one study, 160 male and 160 female college students played either a violent or non-violent game for 20 minutes. When they were finished, the researchers staged a fake fight outside the room where two actors pretended to fight. One of them knocked the other to the ground and as the person struggled to get up, the victor strode off, leaving the person in pain and unable to stand up.

The point of the study was, would the gamers go outside the room and help the person to their feet, and would the type of game they played have any bearing on how long it would take them to offer help?

It did. The average time it took the players of the non-violent games to help was 16.2 seconds. But the average time it took the players of the violent games to help was 1 minute 13.3 seconds – a substantial difference.

Studies of these kind suggest that playing violent video games can affect prosocial behaviour, that is our willingness to show helping behaviour to benefit someone or society, and dampens empathy. But not everyone is affected the same.

Before the era of modern real-life graphics I played hours of games in the 80s when I was a teenager, some of them violent, but I never became violent.

It is highly likely that a person’s social background and early upbringing will affect how much they are affected by violent video games. Children and teenagers living in a warm, generally positive emotional environment, are probably more immune to the effects than those who live in socially or emotionally deprived areas without the buffer of positive emotional support around them to counteract the aggressive effects.

The number of hours played on a regular basis also has an effect. Children who play a lot of hours of violent games tend to show the most aggression. Other studies, though, suggest that the effects are short-lived. But short-lived or not, some children are affected.

So what do we do? As my elder sister and mother of two of my nephews suggests, it’s up to the parents to monitor the kinds of games their children play and how much they play them.

Any maybe software developers could create more games that have a positive impact on prosocial behaviour, inspiring children with ideas of kindness and empathy, and the gaming companies can employ clever marketing people to popularise them, just as we’re seeing with games for the Wii. More please..!



B. J. Buchman and C. A. Anderson, ‘Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others’, Psychological Science, 2009, 20(3), 273-7

A number of scientific studies on media contagion are described in, David R Hamilton PhD, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’, Hay House UK, London, 2011. See chapter 4, ‘Contagion from Video Games’.


Can You Catch a Smile?

I recently told a few friends about the exciting new scientific research that shows just how contagious smiling can be. They decided to test it out by just randomly smiling at people.

One of my friends told me about her shopping trip to ASDA and how, after a few curious looks, some people smiled back. It even led to a conversation with an elderly gentlemen and also a pleasant exchange at the till point.

Another of my friends gave up after about half an hour because he hadn’t been able to raise a smile from a single person. People either just looked straight through him or looked at him funnily.

It might have been the area that he lived in. Maybe people aren’t too happy there. But I assured him that, even though people might not have visibly smiled back, their faces will have done it really fast without them even knowing.

This kind of thing was shown in some research where people were shown a neutral face on a computer screen. Only that’s what they thought, because a happy face was flashed on the screen for about 25 thousandths of a second before the neutral face appeared. It was so fast that the person wasn’t consciously aware of it. But here’s the thing – their brain saw it, and it reacted to it by pulling their smile muscles (the zygomaticus major muscles) into a smile and relaxing them again.

The researchers measured this by fitting tiny electrodes to the facial muscles. The technique is called ‘Facial EMG’ and it can measure tiny movements of the muscles.

In another experiment, people were even shown happy faces and were instructed to frown as soon as they saw the faces. As expected, each person scowled when they saw the happy faces, but not before Facial EMG measured a superfast smile, again within a few thousandths of a second.

So I reassured my friend that everyone he smiled at really did smile back. They just didn’t know that they smiled back.

And he smiled when I suggested that even if they don’t visibly smile back at him, at least they’ll be wondering what he’s been up to.