Stop spreading emotional viruses

Sending out bad vibes through complaining brings everyone down

Special to The TribuneJanuary 22, 2013 


The flu season is in full force. Everyone around us is hacking and wheezing. Legions of co-workers are calling in sick. The kids have been home from school for five days.

There’s an equally viral infection that never makes headlines yet is with us all year long. It’s an emotional contagion that infects how we think and feel.

An “emotional contagion” is present when moods spread quickly from one person to another. For instance, if we’re exposed to another’s cheeriness, we instantly feel better ourselves.

But an emotional contagion can also be a real downer. Just as we respond to another’s happiness, we’re impacted by bad moods, as well.

We can all recall incidences of this happening. A group of people is laughing, feeling upbeat. Then someone arrives and starts talking politics or complaining about conditions at work. The mood instantly turns somber. Warm fuzzies become ice cold. The bad vibes spread faster than pink eye at a summer camp. No one’s immune to the pox.

Carriers seldom recognize what they’re doing. They’re often asymptomatic themselves. Yet they act as emotional Typhoid Marys, spreading gloom wherever they go.

Some folks spread emotional contagions out of habit. Every conversation begins with “I just hate ...” or “Those jerks in Congress ...” They can’t wait to share news of their latest mishap. Aches and pains are always grist for the conversational mill.

They’re hoping you’ll join them in their gripe fest. They thrive in the ain’t-it-awful mode. They gleefully infest others with their psychic malaise. They’re happiest when you feel rotten, too.

This doesn’t mean every conversation needs to be rosy. Of course, there are times when we need to discuss painful topics or hear the latest details of another’s travails.

In those cases, we can serve as good listeners. We can attend to the problems that need addressing. It’s time to don our capes and become Mr. or Ms. Fix It as we focus on something that’s out of whack.

When that’s over, we’re back to business as usual. Our thoughts return to positive and calm. We’ll feel oh-so-much better. Others will catch our mood, too.

How to avoid spreading - and catching - harmful emotional contagions

• Listen to your own words. Notice the subjects you choose to talk about. If most of your conversations are about things that make you unhappy, then you’re spewing emotional germs.

• Enlist the help of others. Ask those around you about your conversational habits. Then be willing to listen to what they say. They’ll be able to accurately tell you how they’re impacted by what you say.

• Choose cheerful topics. Find something you feel good about or share a story that makes you smile. Your inner joy will be apparent to everyone you meet.

• Stay away from politics. Politics are sanctioned complaining. Folks discuss them so they can feel mutually angry and distrustful. You don’t have to give up politics. Vote and lobby as you see fit. Just keep your opinions to yourself. Don’t allow them to spoil others’ moods.

• Avoid talking about your problems and ailments. We all have aches and pains. We have issues with our kids, spouses and bosses. We don’t want to hear about your daily soap opera. Unless you’re in a support group, keep those problems to yourself.

To avoid catching emotional contagions:

• Steer clear of depressing people. Make it a priority to associate with upbeat folks who cast positive energy in their wakes. You’ll benefit from their feel-good vibes. You’ll learn how to spread good cheer, too.

• Watch your own thoughts. If you want to avoid life’s Eeyores, you begin the process at home. Make sure your own psychic energy is constructive and that it’s free from unnecessary angst.

• Discard bad thoughts ASAP. It’s inevitable that you’ll pick up some bad karma. It’s a virus you’re trying hard not to catch. When you notice it in your airwaves, change the channel. Redirect your thinking, stat. Replace harmful thoughts with healthier ones. Meditate on topics that enhance your well-being. Then repeat the process until you’re symptom free.

Linda Lewis Griffith local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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