“We need to talk,” your partner says. You hear The Tone and glance up from your book. They’ve got that look on their face. You know, The Look. The closer they get, the more sure you are. Trouble. With a capital “T”. Cue the opening bars from the Jaws soundtrack. A sick feeling in your stomach kicks up, and you feel weak. Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and your mind races. “What now?” you wonder from a confused place inside.
Welcome to your brain and body on emotional contagion. You have literally “caught” the emotional upset of your partner. It’s not hard to do. We are actually programmed through several complex physiological systems, electrical, hormonal, and chemical, to literally pick up and take on each others negative emotional states. We can tune into each others positive emotions, too, of course, but catching the negative ones are as easy as picking up head lice in a room full of infected kindergartners.
This made great sense eons ago, when the threat of physical danger was great. If we missed a positive signal from someone, the stakes were relatively low—we might miss a meal. But if we missed a negative signal—well, we could be the meal. So nature prepared us well. Survival is paramount, so we read each others signals of fear, upset, and stress with great speed and high precision. And we’re wired to swiftly react with our own fear and upset.
But we don’t have to respond so primitively. We can actually learn to regulate our own response to the signals that others broadcast. We can keep our heads even when those around us, like Kipling famously said, are losing theirs and blaming it on us.
How? Before you continue to read below, start by watching this video, understanding that it’s the real deal, not faked or staged or a camera trick.
Amazing, isn’t it? Now, consider the mood of the diver. Watch the video again if you need to, focusing on her movements and imagining what her emotional state is.
She’s cool as a cucumber, isn’t she. Why? We all know the answer. If she isn’t, she’ll be shark food. This woman is actually one of a handful of the world’s “shark feeders,” people so attuned to these animals that they can interact with them like this.
Her emotional state is crucial–it keeps the animal calm. Animals are wired to pick up fear and upset, just like we human animals are.
When we respond to an upset person or animal in a dispassionate, deliberate manner, they are more likely to calm down. And even if they don’t, we’re able to think more clearly and effectively while we’re interacting with them if we are in a calm, clear frame of mind.
Here are some tips to remain calm when you’re with someone or something that is upset (or upsetting to you):
1. Breathe. Breathe gently and regularly, letting the exhale last as long as the inhale. Inhale-2-3-4, exhale 2-3-4. Do it over and over. The exhale is important, and it regulates the relaxation part of your nervous system. Repeat, slow and easy, again and again.
2. Set an intention to stay calm. Say something like this to yourself: I’m in charge of my own experience, and I am safe. I will remain calm and peaceful as I interact with this person or situation. Breathe into the power in that statement.
3. Recognize the inevitable. You know your partner is going to break out in hives every time they get near the credit card bill. You know your boss is going to get crabby every time his boss comes to town. You know your teenage daughter is going to have a meltdown every time the word “fat” is mentioned within twenty yards of her. If you remember their triggers, you won’t be caught by surprise and you’ll be better prepared to deal with them peacefully.
4. Shields UP, Scotty. Be like Captain Kirk, and get your shield up. Imagine a force field around you. It can be as creative as you’d like. An invisible but very powerful force field like the one that protected the Starship Enterprise. A fluffy, pink, yet impenetrable cloud. A sparkly net of little twinkling stars. A steel shark cage. Imagine you are safely inside it and that upset and agitation bounce right off of it. Feel how safe you are in there. Breathe. This little exercise is actually a powerful tool that engages the right hemisphere of the brain, and enhances your ability to maintain healthy boundaries and to stay immune from emotional contagion.
5. Soften your eyes and widen your gaze. Let your peripheral field of vision help you. When we are afraid or upset, we tend to narrow our focus. It’s nature’s way of helping us keep track of exactly where the shark is. When we intentionally soften our eyes and widen our gaze, allowing our peripheral vision to come into our awareness, we are signaling our nervous system that the shark is gone and everything’s fine.
6. Be empathic without being a sponge. Many of us in the helping and healing professions who work with people in states of upset falsely believe that we have to absorb the toxic energy of our clients in order to understand what they are going through and to help them. This is simply not true. Instead of helping, we wind up drained and burned out, and help no one. These principles of self-protection from emotional contagion apply especially to those of us who work as helpers and healers. We can learn to shift between a state of feeling into another’s emotional state to understand and explore it, back to our own state of calm and peace. It may take some practice, but it’s well worth it. Try shifting your empathic focus in and out of your client’s emotional energy.
7. Step into your own power. Whether it’s a family member, a corporation, or a client, we are often called on to step into our own power. We can resolve not to get sucked into the destructive, disempowered vortex of emotional contagion by understanding that we are all the leaders of our own lives and our own emotional states. This is the underlying thesis of Dan Goleman’s brilliant book Emotional Intelligence, where he states: “Handling someone at the peak of rage is perhaps the ultimate measure of [emotional] mastery.” This is best done by staying in our own business, knowing that we have responsibility only for our own emotional responses.
8. Remember the Truth in the situation. The Truth is always this—there is no situation or person or problem that can be solved or dealt with more effectively, more intelligently, or more efficiently from a place of upset. Upset states compromise us. Calm states enhance our resources.
So next time you hear The Tone or see The Look, the next time you encounter someone who is upset, remember these tips to keep calm. These practices will help you deal with any stressful person or situation, whether your partner is freaking out because the credit card bill just came in the mail, or a ten foot long shark is suddenly swimming alongside you.