February 26th, 2012
08:00 AM ET
Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.
Most Sundays last year, Juliet woke up feeling fine. But as the day wore on, she grew more agitated.
“By early afternoon I felt sick with stress and was walking around snapping at everyone. It was my husband who finally figured out that I was dreading going back to work Monday morning. The anticipation was ruining my Sundays."
Juliet had loved her job until the company where she worked was bought out. The culture of the organization originally built and run by a handful of idealistic scientists shifted overnight.
“The scientists were out, and the incoming CEO and leadership team were these marketing types who set an entirely different tone. The new executives were like these funnels of stress, spreading anxiety throughout the organization.”
It may be hard to imagine how we could possibly be more stressed out than our ancestors - some of whom may have actually had to outrun a mountain lion or two on their way back from fetching dinner - but stress has been referred to as one of the key health epidemics of the 21st century.
It is blamed as the underlying cause for as much as 70% of all visits to primary care physicians. Are some people particularly influential in this epidemic? Do key influencers contribute to a culture of anxiety by helping to set a negative emotional tone that infects our collective well-being?
There may be a few factors at play.
One is our human propensity to pass feelings to one another in a phenomenon called emotional contagion. We volley emotions back and forth all the time, as part of every interaction we have with another person. We can “catch” other people’s anxiety, depression or stress - all with amazing speed and dexterity.
A second factor is interconnectedness. According to a recent study, what was once six degrees of separation between any two people in the world has shrunk to 4.74 - three, if you limit the pair to a particular country. And this much-greater connection packs a multiplatform punch across a variety of devices that most of us refuse to put down.
Take emotional contagion and greater connectivity, and add people in key positions of influence - our bosses, politicians, media, teachers, among others. A notable few wield their power to inspire, enlighten and advance, but far too many perpetuate a climate of negativity.
Some of these stress influencers are merely passive, thoughtless and irresponsible, while others are actively manipulative and self-serving. Either way, by virtue of their power positions, these people can wreak havoc by spreading anxiety. It is a pattern of behavior perhaps most damaging during times of hardship.
I asked Judith Orloff, M.D., psychiatrist and bestselling author of “Emotional Freedom,” about the possibility of people serving as stress channels.
“I haven’t heard it put that way exactly, but I like the idea. That groups of people can channel and possibly amplify anxiety is compelling. People in power are often models for the whole organization and they can create a high level of stress that affects everyone... Certainly some of our leaders need to go back to compassion school because they appear to have no concept of being in service.”
“We know that people pay more attention to, and put more importance on, what leaders say and do - especially at work,” observes renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of “Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence."
“This means that a business leader, for instance, has an emotional responsibility to help prime emotions in a better direction. There are many studies showing that if the leader is in a bad mood, followers catch it and their work suffers; if in a good one, then the good mood spreads and performance improves.”
“I’d love to see our leaders and the media become more conscious of the toxic impacts of emotional negativity.”
The good news about emotional contagion is that it works both ways: you can choose to spread anxiety and dissatisfaction, but hope, joy and bliss are equally contagious.
And, at least in theory, the same applies to stress channels. Those same influencers can make conscious choices to serve as channels for well-being and unity instead of angst and discord.
Next week I will explore how to cope with potential stress channels in your life - and how to avoid becoming one yourself. But until then, please do enjoy your Sunday. Disconnect, disengage, spend time with your family. And possibly take comfort in the high unlikelihood that you are going to be chased by any mountain lions before dinner tonight.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.