How to deflect negative emotion

Here’s a very simple hack for when you feel you’re soaking up other people’s emotions.

Image: iStock / Getty

We all catch other people’s emotions. It’s called ‘emotional contagion’ because the effect is similar to catching a bug, only it’s an emotion we catch rather than a cold. 

It is extremely common and probably much more so than you’d think. In fact, some research suggests that about 15-25% of the average person’s emotional state at any time has little to do with the circumstances of their life, but is simply what they’ve caught from others. Think about that for a moment. How much of your emotions throughout the day are your emotions and how much have you simply ‘picked up’ from other people?

You’ve probably noticed it when you’re around certain people. Maybe even at work.

Have you noticed that you tend to feel stressed around people who are stressed? Calm around relaxed people? Even jittery around people who are anxious? And once you’re no longer in their company, you can still feel the effects for hours afterwards.

Just about everyone can relate to this. Now, it’s easy to assume that emotional contagion is due to what the person is saying, which does of course matter. About 10-40% of emotional contagion may indeed be down to what’s being said. But about 60-90% of it is not WHAT is being said, but HOW it is being said. Emotional contagion is carried more in our non-verbal communication – through facial expressions, body language, etc.

How it works

If you want to know how it works, say you’re with someone who is stressed. Our natural tendency for empathy means that our brains mirror the facial expressions of each other. Your brain has a network known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), which effectively mirrors the facial expressions of the person you’re giving your attention to. If he or she is stressed, the muscles between their eyebrows will contract (known as the corrugator supercillii), and their jaw, neck and shoulders will probably tense too.

Your MNS will mirror, that is, copy, these muscle movements. It then signals your own muscles to do the same and so the longer you spend in their company, the more your own corrugator supercillii will contract and your jaw, neck and shoulders will tense. At the same time, the MNS pings your emotional circuitry to produce the emotions that go with this pattern of muscle tension. The longer you’re in their company, the more you feel how they feel.

It’s great when you’re around people who feel like sunshine because they lift you up and make you feel brightly, but it can be difficult when you’re around angry or stressed people a lot. This is where a technique for deflecting, or blocking, emotional contagion comes in handy.

I developed this myself several years ago when I suddenly became aware of what was happening. I was writing a book at the time (The Contagious Power of Thinking, published in 2011) and had the startling realisation of why I always felt the way I did around certain people and in specific situations. 

I took an emotional contagion test (you can get one on this link) and scored 57 / 60 (95% percentile), putting me right up there in the ‘highly sensitive’ bracket.

The MNS tends to work unconsciously in that we typically don’t notice it, but I realised that we can quite easily take control of it and use it in a positive way to deflect, or block, unwanted emotions. Here’s how.

How to block unwanted emotions

The first step is simply to notice that it’s happening. This turns something that’s usually happening unconsciously into something conscious that can be harnessed.

The next step uses the fact that the dominant route of emotional contagion is through facial expressions, so the idea is to scramble the information that’s been reaching your MNS. 

A simple way to do this is to rub and stretch the corrugator supercillii muscles and your jaw (or neck – whichever is tensing). An even more effective way is to spend a few seconds stretching out as many of your facial muscles as you can, but of course if you’re in a business meeting then this might look a wee bit strange. You can always do what I once did, by ‘accidentally’ dropping my pen and stretching and contorting my facial muscles like a gargoyle as I reached down to pick it up, out of sight of everyone. 😆

The final step is to adopt facial expressions and a body posture that is consistent with the way you want to feel. So if you want to feel relaxed, for example, then relax your facial muscles, wear a soft smile, straighten your spine, drop your shoulders, and breathe steadily with your attention on your breath and your face, shoulders, etc.

That’s it. My experience is that this stops negative emotional contagion in its tracks and creates the state you want within less than a minute. And the more you practice it, the faster you get results.

Here’s a simple summary of the 3 steps:

Step 1: Notice that you’re catching people’s emotion

Step 2: Scramble the information reaching your MNS by stretching your facial muscles

Step 3: Assert the facial expressions and body posture that are consistent with how you want to feel

That’s it.

There is another way, of course, to stop catching specific people’s emotions. You could always leave the room. But, if that’s not an option, then this technique is the next best thing.

I hope you find it useful.

14 Comments

  1. ElenaSpring on January 13, 2022 at 10:58 am

    Thank yiu David this makes sense I find in shops when wearing a mask I am often stretching my facial muscles

    • Elizabeth Reyes on January 17, 2022 at 9:32 pm

      Several years ago my adult son came to live with me while going through an episode of extreme anxiety. I found him a therapist, and tried to help him., but I worried about him so deeply, that I caught his anxiety to the point that I couldn’t sleep and lost my appetite, to the point I could no longer function and had to be hospitalized on a psychiatric ward. What a time!! Thankfully he recovered and I recovered. So I know exactly what you’re talking about here!!

  2. Marianne on January 13, 2022 at 11:08 am

    This is so true, and I’m going to use this technique.

    It has been a very stressful environment at work since we returned from the Christmas break. I am remaining positive, and a colleague told me my positivity is contagious, but I have noticed that when I’m in meetings, even remote meetings, that you pick up on others behaviour.

  3. emma c on January 13, 2022 at 11:29 am

    Hi David,

    This is a really interesting topic. Speaking from my own experience, I notice this a lot. I seem to be a sponge for it. What if these people are continuously stressed, angry or anxious? Is there a way to help them change their own outlook or state of being? Some of these people are very close to me and in the past because of the negative effect on my own well-being, My own family has said that I become a different person when I’ve spent time with XYZ. To combat this I have found myself starting to swerve spending time with them. Also, I find I have slipped into a negative pattern with certain people whereby because maybe I have leant a sympathetic ear they feel that I am a their go to sounding board. How do I help them to see things in a more positive light and thereby improve my (and their) experience of our time together? I don’t just want to be a fair weather friend but its so mentally, emotionally and physically draining to constantly be the upbeat one.
    PS…in the interest of being fair, I too have been guilty of occasionally being a Debbie downer but I’m working hard to improve upon this (I hope it’s working)

    • Lisa Burnage on January 13, 2022 at 2:29 pm

      I found this really useful , thank you David. In answer to your question Emma, from my own experience you can’t change others. I worked with a very negative team last year, and wound myself up in knots trying to help, and get them to see their own behaviour. I was getting increasingly frustrated, to the point I was making myself ill. Luckily my boss saw what was happening, and we discussed it. Individuals will change at their own pace… or not.
      I got a new job! Now working with a lovely bunch of supportive individuals
      Spend time with those who you enjoy being with

  4. Kelly Howard on January 13, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you! I have a new person in my group coaching that I’ve been letting throw me off track on our calls with her responses, using this method on the next call!

  5. Sandra Ward on January 13, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    Great advice, backed up so clearly by science. I may be dropping my pen in meetings a lot more in future! Thank you

    • pauline cornes on January 13, 2022 at 1:33 pm

      Thank you for the great advice and tips .i will definitely be dropping a few things during Vounteer work in our Kitchrn:Cafe..❤️

  6. Maggie La Tourelle on January 13, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you David. Researchers have found that Emotional Contagion is even more pronounced in people with Alzheimer’s disease (VE Sturm, University of California, San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center. May 2013). So knowing this we can affect people with Alzheimer’s in a positive way and this can lead to a positive symbiotic relationship as they mirror back to us the feelings of what they are seeing and hearing. This happened with my mother and me and I called it, The Gift of Alzheimer’s.

    • Lissa Ruben on January 16, 2022 at 2:39 pm

      Your response is deeply touching my heart… I only wish I had known more when my Mum suffered Alzheimer’s…I realise how much more I could have done if I had opened up fully and connected with her more more often. Thank you.

  7. Maureen Kelly on January 13, 2022 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you so much, dear David! Yes – especially for ‘we empaths’ this can be a challenge. Finding that sweet spot between being empathic and taking care of ourselves. I find also bringing awareness to deep full breathing helps -kind of an extra release of negativity on the out breath. (And I love the ‘drop the pencil’ trick!) Many blessings to you.

  8. Kim Keyes on January 13, 2022 at 6:23 pm

    Thank you David this is happening to me a lot of late. I am very much an empath and it’s causing me anxiety when I am around people who are negative and stressed causing me to be the same. It makes so much sense as unfortunately their is a lot of negative emotions and fear going around that people don’t know how to cope with it. Thankfully we have people like you to help.

  9. Kaye Thistleton on January 16, 2022 at 12:46 am

    Dear David, this is actual life saving info.My homeless family (two adult children and a grandson) have been living with me, but my landlady wants them out in two weeks. A housing crisis means they have no where to go, the stress has been enormous and the whole experience a horror.Such simple advice may make the last two weeks of shelter with me bearable, I cannot pull a home for them out of a hat, nor can I change their understandable distress.They lost everything as their old house was full of toxic mould. But I can change me with this simple hack which will help them feel heard, supported and cared about. Thinking about kindness, I relate it to a pebble which when thrown into a pond, creates ripples affecting all around it. You are like that pebble, David, but in your case, I would call you a gem. With many thanks, from Australia.

  10. Lissa on January 16, 2022 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you David for your wonderful articles and your daily boost, always relevant.

    We are incredibly blessed to have you in our lives

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