How to deflect negative emotion

faces of different women's emotions

image: iStock photo

Have 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. 🙂


  1. Anita Mitchell on May 24, 2016 at 8:28 am

    I love this. Would smiling be just as good to interrupt the contagion?

  2. Marléne Rose Shaw on May 24, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Perfect timing, thanks David. I tried it – it works!

  3. Maggie La Tourelle on May 24, 2016 at 9:15 am

    Lovely blog David. I got interested in this subject in relation to Alzheimer’s. Researchers at UCLA SF Memory and Ageing Centre found that as cognition decreases in people with Alzheimer’s, empathy increases and because of this these people experience a greater degree of emotional contagion. This has huge impactions for us as we can influence how they feel.

  4. Vicki Seaton on May 25, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Absolutely love your blogs David. For example, “How to deflect negative emotion” is a very helpful one as no doubt, too many people
    suffer from negativity these days. Of course, it’s not surprising as the media cover too many very depressing stories on a global
    scale. Hence, to understand and interrupt emotional contagion I believe, is invaluable as over time, negativity is soul sucking.
    Keep up the good work. You are amazing!!
    All Best Wishes,
    Vicki Seaton

  5. Simona De Serdici on May 25, 2016 at 11:10 am

    Thanks David, very useful and practical !

  6. Sonnal Pardiwala on May 25, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    working on my Emotion Contagion phenomenon!!! Thanx I realised what was happenin to my confidence really!!!

  7. vida Green on May 25, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Thank you David something i must really learn…

  8. Susan on May 25, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Very useful info!

  9. suz on May 26, 2016 at 1:58 am

    As a Chinese Face Reader, I absolutely LOVE this!! I’ll have to check out your other work. Science to Inspire could my mantra. Nice! 😀

  10. Jane Bingham on May 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you David. I always feel empowered when I read your material. So good!

  11. Therese on May 27, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks, David….simple techniques, but very empowering!

  12. Mary Collings on May 29, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    Wow Dr. David,

    Such simple ways to preserve your energy. And it’s a recognised medical phenomenon too – fantastic. Thanks for such a great post.

  13. Sally Heady on June 5, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Great article with straightforward explanation about mirror neurons – wonderful to cover the flip side on how we can transmit happiness as well!

  14. Nancy on March 13, 2017 at 5:26 am

    This woke up my brain to react as u wrote because of people that makes me feel sad, my integrity is broken and it hurts me deeply, I feel used daily, I am so tired. I thank you for this article so I can prepare to react with your examples of MNS.

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