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Emotional Contagion: Being an “Emotional Sponge”

Emotional Contagion: Being an “Emotional Sponge”

Empathy is a universal human ability.

When it is genuinely missing or inadequate, such as in cases of autism or psychopathy, we describe it as a serious mental illness. Like most other human qualities however, empathy may be innately stronger in some individuals. It can also be consciously or unconsciously fostered or defended against. As a result some individuals will be highly and almost excessively empathic with others. They often describe themselves as “emotional sponges”, helplessly absorbing the feelings, both good and bad of those around them.

Empathy is the earliest form of communication.

Human beings communicate through empathic connection from birth. Mothers and infants accurately read each other’s emotional communications. This skill is never lost and we all use empathic understanding of other people’s feelings to round out and nuance what they say to us. We all know that the same words offered in a tender or a sarcastic tone can have vastly different implications and emotional effects.

We rarely, however, think about this subliminal communication and we are usually not aware of how we do it.

Anxiety and anger are the most “catching”

While all emotions can be empathically transmitted between people, the most problematic feelings are those of anxiety and anger.

There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

All higher animals are sensitive to signals of environmental danger from others around them. An alarm signal prepares the individual for self-protective action, be it fight or flight. Preparedness for action includes vascular, muscular respiratory and endocrinal responses which we then experience as the physical feelings of anxiety and tension.

Interpersonal signal reading – Visual and vocal changes communicate anxiety.

As early as 1949, psychological researchers such as Jurgen Reusch observed that in human beings, transmission of danger signals can be visible: sweating, strained postures, shallow breathing, blushing, general restlessness.

There are also audible cues: voices may become loud or shrill, the pitch of the voice may rise or alternate arrythmically between high and low, there may be spurts or rushes of talk, lack of pauses, interruption of others, variations in speed of talk, or inappropriate laughter. The reverse picture is also indicative of anxiety: faltering speech, long pauses, and the introduction non-words such as “ah” or “uh”.

Semantic or textual clues.

Reusch also found that when anxious conversations are transcribed, anxiety can be conversationally signaled by an increase in the number of words relating to feelings, personal pronouns and subjective qualifications which are recognized by the reader as indicating self-concern. Anger is signaled by expressions of self-instigated actions, “doing” rather than “feeling.” By comparison, a relaxed attitude is characterized by an increase in the number of concrete nouns and objective qualifications.

All these details and more are unconsciously or semi-consciously absorbed by a conversational partner or bystander and understood intuitively as signals of alarm or excitement which can then trigger anxiety or excitement in them as well.

Emotional contagion researcher, Elaine Hatfield observes that human beings have “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally “(Hatfield et al, 1992)

Mirror neurons are the basis for empathy

Recent research has discovered a sophisticated system of “mirror neurons” in the brain. Mirror neurons sit alongside the motor neurons which send movement signals to our muscles. Mirror neurons, however, fire when we observe gestures, specifically intentional gestures in others. In effect, when we watch another person do something we experience the gestures ourselves in a microscopic inward way. Most of the time this is not translated into action but most of us have had the experience of swaying slightly in sympathy with the movements of a skater or a skier that we see on TV, or of “bouncing in our seat” to urge a favored athlete to put on more speed in a race. These are ways in which we show that we are empathically participating in the effort that we see in others.

Participation in other’s experience is, however not limited to copying gestures.

As I have described above, there are many “gestures” in the sense of physical and verbal changes that we observe in others that have to do with feeling states. These indications are also responded to by our mirror neurons and this is now suggested to be the basis of empathy. It is also unfortunately the root of emotional contagion, and leads to situations where a person may be unconsciously and unwillingly “captured” by the feelings of those around them.

Reducing this tension, Good and bad ways

When the tension and the emotional contamination is mild, it may be possible to simply shake it off or relieve it by small reactionssuch as a nervous laugh.

When it is stronger, a person may intuitively try to cope with this interpersonal pressure by trying to calm or reassure the other so that they stop sending signals of anxiety or anger. In this way they behave the way a good parent might have when a child communicated their distress.

If, however, the emotional pressure in the other is not easily relieved, a sensitive person may find themselves drawn into a continuing cycle of care and consolation of the other which can become exploitative or abusive.

  • An example of this might be a sibling who repeatedly calls and discharges all his or her anxiety and tension into their sister late at night. The caller leaves the exchange feeling temporarily relieved and calmed and the recipient of the call is now left tossing and turning all night with worry about their sibling

Continued experience of emotional contagion is “pernicious” and over time can cause harm.

It is one of the peculiarities of this form of unconscious, non-verbal communication that the sender is often trying to get rid of or “evacuate” feelings that they don’t like to feel or think about, in themselves and also in others. As a result, they may be strangely un-empathic about the feeling states that they evoke in the recipient. They will often deny that they even have feelings of anxiety or anger themselves and may attack their partner for showing signs of such weakness when they respond with empathic contagion.

This leaves the recipient in a difficult psychological position of presuming that they are the only one feeling so anxious or angry or upset.

  • As a result of the other’s denial, the feelings that are evoked through emotional contagion are often not recognized as arising in the other and the recipient may try to explain these strange and unpleasant feelings as if they were their own.
  • This leads to inner conversations where the sensitive, responsive individual may attack themselves for always being “anxious for no reason” and worry about their own mental health or stability.
  • Left carrying the burden of the unpleasant feelings, the recipient may look for tension relief in unhealthy ways such as over-eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, videogames or other diversions.

Emotional contagion finds a hook in the receiver

“We are all more simply human than otherwise”

Empathy and emotional contagion work because all human beings are susceptible to feelings of anxiety, fear, anger and hopelessness under some circumstances. Emotional contagion rings our personal bells and makes us hunt around inside ourselves for the explanation for our unpleasant feelings..

  • The recipient of emotional contagion may sometimes even unconsciously create problems for themselves because they may be driven to invent situations which would justify their inexplicable anxiety, depression, hopelessness or despair.

Awareness helps.

Being aware that it is possible to resonate empathically with another person’s feelings can go a long way to preventing the worst outcomes. It can permit the sensitive person to ask, “Are these feelings really more appropriate to my partner than to me at the moment?”

The recognition that emotions are contagious can give you a clue as to how you can regulate your own experiences of contagion. It may sometimes be emotionally wise to limit the time you spend in the psychological environments of people who are depressed, bitter or angry.

In terms of emotional responses you are in a two person field

Emotional contagion researcher Hatfield suggests:

“In social interaction, focusing only on oneself or only on the other can be equally blinding. The most information can be gained by alternately checking one’s own reactions and observing one’s partners and now and then moving to a different level of analysis to focus on what is going on in the interaction.”

More easily seen from outside

Because emotional contagion is so subtle and hooks onto our own human fears, it is sometimes more easily recognized by an outsider. Speaking to a trusted friend, counselor or therapist, may be a way to get the perspective you need to

regain your own perspective on the situation and stop the distressing inner conversations about helplessness or inferiority.

Emotional contagion in short bursts is a valid and potent form of interpersonal communication.

A sensitive and aware individual can use it to empathically understand another person’s real feelings in a situation and do what needs to be done to reduce the other’s tension… but when it begins to attack your long term mental and emotional equilibrium it is time to learn more about it!


Reusch, J. & Prestwood, A. R., (1949). Anxiety: It’s Initiation, Communication and Interpersonal Management, Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, Vol. 62 No.5, Pgs 527-550.

E. Hatfield, J.T. Cacioppo, and R.L. Rapson, (1992) Primitive emotional contagion, Emotions and Social Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 14, pp 153-154