How to not catch a bad mood

Just like a cold or virus, you can ‘catch’ someone’s ill temper. Here's how to protect yourself.
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You felt okay when you left for work this morning, but by the time you got home you felt completely drained – and it’s not just the usual tiredness.

It feels like you’ve been totally depleted of life force. You’re grumpy as hell, too – snapping at your kids, picking a fight with your partner for no reason… and now they’ve all become stroppy in turn. Ugh!

Everything was going fine today until your workmate cornered you to whinge about her ex-husband and did the usual rant about demanding clients. And then there was that late-afternoon meeting where your manager painted a grim outlook for the next quarter, leaving you feeling on edge…

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’ve likely experienced what scientists call ‘mood contagion’ – a phenomena where emotions are transferred between people.

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The idea that emotions can spread had already been proven in multiple studies, but in the past few years researchers from the University of Tennessee in the US have shown that mood contagion is intensified in a group setting – which is why one negative or challenging person at work can lower the mood of the entire team.

“It can work in both a positive direction and a negative direction,” explains organisational psychologist Rachel Clements.

“It’s quite interesting because our brain is a lot more hard-wired for negative emotion – we are much more biased towards negative experiences, negative stories, risks, problems, challenges and setbacks. When we think of it in evolutionary terms, having that negative bias really helped to save our lives when we were hunters and gatherers. We still have that bias in our brains, and now it’s maybe not as advantageous.”

Mood contagion unfolds in stages.

In the first stage, you unconsciously and subtly copy non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and postures (think: frowning, hunched shoulders), of the other person.

That communicates negativity to your brain, which you then adopt as your own emotional state – probably, Rachel notes, without you even noticing it’s happening.

In her work, Rachel often encounters mood contagion when an organisation is going through challenging times, such as a restructure.

Regardless of the circumstances, if you’re dealing with a negative workmate – or even someone in your social circle – it’s important to remember that they might be unaware their behaviour is adversely affecting others, she says.

“A lot of the time it is not people’s intention to get out of bed every morning and whinge and complain and be negative, and impact on their colleagues’ wellbeing – they’re just doing it because they don’t know what else to do,” she advises.

“So I would suggest trying to have an honest and authentic conversation with that individual from a care-and-concern perspective to help shift their thinking. Just to say, ‘Look, I’m here to support you, I know we’re all going through a challenging time, but maybe there is a different way to think about this.’

It’s about really helping that person to reframe the situation or have a different perspective.

“You could even come from the perspective of: ‘You know what, I just noticed in the last couple of weeks that you seem to be not quite yourself… you’re a little bit more negative or disgruntled, and that’s not like you. Are you okay?'”

If, however, you know that negativity tends to be the person’s default state, Rachel suggests a different approach.

“My favourite line is: ‘I’m not sure whether you’re aware…’ So you could be quite assertive and say: ‘I’m not sure whether you’re aware, however, just with some of this conversation that’s a bit heavy or a little bit negative, it is actually getting me down. I’m happy to talk, connect and support, but maybe let’s mix up the conversation with a bit of lightness,'” advises Rachel.

Restricting your contact with your negative colleague to only task-focused conversations can be another effective way of limiting mood contagion.

“Asking someone how they are, for example, could actually lead to a whole lot of negativity,” explains Rachel.

“Instead, you might want to just say, ‘Hey, I’ve got five minutes, just checking in around that project…’

“If you’re a bit stuck, go to a manager or HR and ask them for help. Maybe your organisation has an employee assistance program; go and speak to somebody to get a bit of coaching around how to navigate those delicate situations.”

How to counteract mood contagion

And if you find you’re taking home people’s negative emotions regularly, Rachel says it’s important to “put the oxygen mask on yourself” at the end of the day.

That means knowing how to boost your own wellbeing.

“That could be: ‘I really need to get some fresh air and go for a walk to clear my head.’ It might be: ‘I really have got to get some exercise to release some endorphins.’ Or, ‘tonight I might have a bath, a good sleep and eat well.'”

The good news about mood contagion is that it works with positive emotions, too. According to an American study across 20 years, having a positive neighbour increases your own happiness by 34 percent, while having a positive-minded friend living nearby gives a 25 percent boost to happiness.

“If you hang around negative people, that’s going to bring you down and deplete you,” Rachel explains.

“But if you hang around positive people, it’s really impactful how influential they can be on your own wellbeing and your own emotions. So another antidote is to hang around positive people to boost you up again.”

Are you an empath?

There’s another way to look at mood contagion that could explain why certain people might be more susceptible to taking on board other people’s emotions than others.

In spirituality, it’s believed there is an energy field surrounding each person, and that this can play a role in transferring emotions between people.

“I get a lot of clients who are coming from the corporate world, feeling stressed from work and having picked up on other people’s moods,” says spiritual hypnotherapist Donna Kovacs.

“From my perspective, that’s from the energy that’s being emitted. You know the saying, ‘Cut the air with a knife’? We can walk into a room and sense if someone’s had an argument or if there’s a bit of sadness in the air.

According to Donna, certain people are especially vulnerable to taking on board other people’s emotions – known as being an ’empath’.

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“It’s almost a different thing to being sympathetic,” she explains.

“It’s more of a kinaesthetic (tactile) sense of what the person’s feeling – you’re energetically or emotionally feeling what the other person feels. It goes deeper than just having a sense of sympathy or understanding. I think everybody is to some degree aware of this sensitivity, but an empath, I think, is more finely tuned into that.”

Even if you don’t identify with being an empath, taking a spiritual approach might help you shield yourself from other people’s moods.

“If someone tells you a sad story and you leave feeling sad, it’s good that you’re empathetic and can relate to the person, but you don’t want to carry their sadness,” says Donna.

“One of the things that I suggest is to take a few moments to breathe and imagine you are sucking your energy field in closer to you, like you were having a blanket wrapped around you. You can take a second just to imagine it coming really close.”

Donna recommends empaths practise becoming aware of when they’ve taken on a mood that doesn’t belong to them.

“Once you recognise it’s not yours, imagine just breathing it out and letting it go. Mindfulness is also another practice to become aware of your own emotions and noticing if it is relating to you or somebody else.

She adds, “Just getting outside, being in nature, going for a walk can help.”

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