When you are perfectly centered, in harmony and feel that everything flows, it can be very frustrating when a chance encounter or certain circumstances alter that balance that you have worked so hard to achieve. This can generate a state of irritability and anxiety.
Obviously, anxiety is usually not pleasant, especially when it becomes intense and persistent. However, it is not something we can escape from either – no matter how much we want or try. In fact, research has shown that a moderate dose of anxiety can even be beneficial, helping us sharpen our senses and make better decisions.
Emotional contagion, the way anxiety is transmitted from one person to another
Have you ever felt anxious after checking social media? Or maybe after talking to a visibly stressed person? Stress, tension and anxiety are everywhere. So unless you decide to live like a hermit cutting off all contact with society, you will have to expose yourself to those emotions. It is unavoidable.
And since emotions have the power to spread like wildfire, especially negative ones, it is practically impossible for them not to end up affecting you. Stress is contagious, as is anxiety. Therefore, trying to escape from them is a mission doomed to failure in advance.
Emotional contagion is a psychological phenomenon through which a person’s emotions can spread to those around them. This is due to several natural phenomena, including imitation.
We tend to imitate the people with whom we interact to facilitate communication and establish a more intense bond. Many times we don’t realize it, but we automatically synchronize our movements, facial expressions, voices, postures and behaviors with those of others.
As a result, it is not strange that we can pick up on their emotions and begin to feel them firsthand. When we start to tense our muscles, wrinkle our brows, or move faster, our brain receives the signal that something is not right. Therefore, we can end up feeling really anxious or stressed.
By picking up on the emotions of others, we also run the risk of getting “stuck” in them. If we are not aware of this process and do not make an effort to remain calm, it is not strange that, in a fast-paced world, we feel the anxiety of others, to the point of making it our own.
In this sense, a study carried out with mice showed that there is a complex mechanism of stress transmission, which even includes the release of chemicals and hormones, so that stress in one of the animals caused changes in the brain of the other.
Although we are humans, we probably have a similar ancestral mechanism; in fact, we use pheromones in our relationships much more than we assume or are willing to admit. Stress, anxiety and fear are particularly important emotions because they can alert us to danger, so it is logical that we are naturally “programmed” to detect them particularly quickly and effectively, also through the most subtle signals of body language.
You can’t escape anxiety, but you can keep it under control
The good news is that anxiety is a normal response and has an adaptive function. If we are empathetic people, it is understandable that we share the worry and stress of those around us or that even things that happen on the other side of the world affect us emotionally.
In fact, another study developed at the University of Louisville, this time with people, concluded that there is “An indirect relationship between empathy and anxiety at the brain level due to the ruminative tendencies and worry they share.”
However, being empathetic does not mean becoming an emotional sponge, much less submerging ourselves in anxiety completely, to the point of allowing it to control our lives.
Therefore, the objective is not to treat anxiety, turning it into an aversive state from which we must flee at all costs, but rather to learn to deal with the emotions and reactions it triggers in order to keep it under control and prevent it from going beyond the point of no return.
Performing exercises to relax the mind, as well as breathing exercises, will allow us to stay balanced, as well as making sure we disconnect enough, so that stress and tension do not accumulate so that they do not end up taking their toll on us. You may not be able to run away from them, but you can control them. And that is the most important thing.
Knight, L. K. et. Al. (2019) Convergent Neural Correlates of Empathy and Anxiety During Socioemotional Processing. Front. Hum. Neurosci.; 13: 3389.
Sterley, T. L. (2018) Social transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress. Nature Neuroscience; 21: 393–403.
Engert, V. et. Al. (2014) Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by social closeness and observation modality. Psychoneuroendocrinology; 45: 192-201.