Don't let others stress you out
September 7th, 2011
02:35 PM ET

Don't let others stress you out

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity - the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

When I tell Pam, my stressed-out lawyer friend, that stress is contagious, she seems unimpressed.

“I have always kind of suspected that,” she says, “ever since in 'Ghostbusters II,' when the guys discover that people’s nonstop negativity has created an evil slime that threatens humanity. Then they find out the slime reacts to both positive and negative emotions, so they have a bunch of New Yorkers hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ to it in Central Park or something. And boom! The slime dissolves.”

I’m sort of speechless, though the comparison is oddly compelling.

It may seem more science fiction than science, but emotional contagion - though not the slime part - is a well-researched phenomenon.

“We pass emotions back and forth all the time, as part of every interaction we have with another person,” notes Daniel Goleman, author of “Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence.” “It’s usually subtle, but sometimes all too obvious.”

As it turns out, we humans are an empathetic bunch. According to Elaine Hatfield, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and author of “Emotional Contagion,” we can “catch other people’s anxiety, depression or stress. Whatever they’re feeling, we feel the same way.”

Studies show that even newborns may be capable of vocal and movement mimicry. In one classic study, 2- to 4-day-olds responded to the emotional distress of other newborns by crying as well. They did not respond similarly when they heard a synthetic cry.

And some are “spongier” than others - that is, they may be more prone to soaking up the emotional mood in the room. (I must be really spongy. I can get hives from a particularly acrimonious episode of “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”)

So how does contagious stress work in an era that seems particularly stressful - from the very real anxiety about economic troubles, environmental disasters, political discord, wars and terrorism, to the engineered frenzy whipped up by the-sky-is-falling politicians and talk show hosts? How toxic and far-reaching is contagious stress? Can it infect entire cities? Countries? Can our whole world be stressed out?

“There are documented cases of mass hysteria,” says Daniel Rempala, also a professor at the University of Hawaii. “For example, in a town where people think there’s been an outbreak and begin reacting with similar symptoms, even though it’s later found out there was no outbreak.”

If you can have that kind of contagion within a city or town, it’s conceivable that it could affect a larger population as well.

“We also know that following 9/11, even some people who didn’t experience the actual events were affected by post-traumatic stress. It appeared to correlate to how much television they watched,” he says.

And how quickly can contagious stress spread?

“The research is varied, but it can happen with amazing rapidity,” says Hatfield. “We can respond to people’s faces faster than we can have a thought. That suggests it’s so primitive, it’s probably going through the brain stem.”

Primitive! Faster than a speeding thought! This is bad, I think. There must be a way to protect ourselves from contagious stress during what must surely be one of the most trying times in history.

I reach out to Stanford’s James Gross who, I’m told, is the top expert on emotional modulation. Surely he’ll know what to do.

Says Gross: “We do see ourselves as living in more stressful times. But it is also true that in many historical periods people seemed to think they were in the most stressful times ever. It’s actually a very common experience to see yourself as living in a particularly stressful period.”

What are you saying?

“I guess I’m questioning the premise that we are living in necessarily more stressful times.”

I feel oddly deflated.

And maybe Gross picks up on that - all spongy-like - and decides to throw me a bone: “Having said that, I would certainly agree that lots of people are stressed, and there are many polarizing and upsetting things happening in the world. We are now much more aware on a day-to-day basis of world events than ever before. We have unprecedented daily access through a variety of media. And our nervous systems are built to seek out information all around us in an adaptive way because by knowing about bad things, you try to prevent those bad things from happening to you.”

So not only are we getting bombarded by the negative information, which we tend to seek out, but it’s also packing a much greater, multi-platform punch.

How do we go about regulating our emotions in the face of what may feel like a tsunami of stress?

“There are two key ideas here,” Gross tells me. “One is that the source of most of this stress is that we are much more rarely turned off. In the old days, people got upset and were able to go for a walk and get away. Now, with our various communication devices, we are never far from all sorts of bad news.”

The other key idea is that even though we feel that  negative emotions may be entirely out of our control, we have considerable control over the emotions and stress that we feel. According to Gross, you can exert emotional control and regulation in a few extremely effective ways.

The first is to change the world - or at least the parts of the world you expose yourself to. You can do this by, say, turning off the television, not seeking out the goriest movies, staying away from the divisive forces in your life.

The second is to change your mind - that is, change your mental activity, either through attention or thinking. You can be exposed to something nasty, but you can shift your attention in a very rapid way so that you think of other things that are more positive or neutral. Say you’re stuck in a meeting with people who are very toxic. You can develop the capacity to shift or modify your emotional focus, and that can be immensely powerful.

The third is to change your body and how your body is responding. Gross suggests trying deep breathing or relaxation techniques to keep your body calm.

“We find in our work that people can use each of these strategies and it really changes the emotion and stress response - both the physiological and brain response and the brain areas associated with emotion generation.”

Goleman echoes this recommendation: “We are masters of our inner world. We can intentionally practice methods for relaxation that will counter the stress of negativity. The more we practice, the better it works as an inoculation against toxic environments. Find a relaxation method that works for you and practice it daily - the same way you would an exercise routine.”

And then there’s the flip side of contagious stress: contagious joy, happiness, bliss. Emotional contagion applies to positive emotions as well.

“Happily so,” observes Goleman. “When we’re with an upbeat person, we’re likely to catch their mood too.”

It reminds me of something Oprah once said she learned from Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain scientist who wrote “My Stroke of Insight”: “You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.”

I’ll sing a chorus of "Kumbaya" to that.

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