Emotional Contagion

Have you noticed your mood lifting when you are with someone who is happy? When your best friend got married, did you feel their joy? Has your heart raced with excitement as each point or goal is scored in a tennis or football match?

Unfortunately, it’s not just happy, pleasant, enjoyable feelings and emotions that are transferred from one person to another. We can also feel other people’s distress, despair or trauma. That is why your eyes might well up in tears when a friend shares their grief, or you feel a churning in your stomach when a patient is anxious, or a sinking feeling when with someone who is depressed.

Why do we feel other people’s emotions?

It’s natural to smile when we see others smile. Similarly, when listening to a distressed patient, we might unconsciously furrow our brow, drop the corners of our mouth, or adopt a slumped posture. Since we tend to like people who are similar to us, this process of mirroring is programmed into us from birth. It helped us bond with our parents, fit into the community and thrive.

When we interact closely with others, studies show that we may spontaneously mirror their:

  • facial expression(1, 2)
  • body posture
  • breathing patterns
  • heart rate(3, 4)

This unconscious mirroring (5) helps us tune into and resonate with others, and is believed to be the mechanism which leads to us feeling the same emotions as the other person, whether it’s anger, grief or fear. This process is called emotional contagion. (6, 7)

Unfortunately, if you are prone to emotional contagion, and easily affected by the distress, pain or trauma of those you work with, you are more likely to burn out, and it’s essential for you to find effective ways to:

  • prevent work stress from leaching into your personal life
  • process and release emotional distress
  • calm anxiety
  • access positive thoughts and emotions
  • replenish your energy

My book The Thriving Giver (LINK) offers a wide range of resources which will help protect you from the emotional demands of your work, and ensure that you thrive, not just survive. It’s only when you thrive that you can give from a cup that is overflowing.

The Role of Empathy in Burnout

Empathy plays an important role when caring for the wellbeing of others. However, if you are naturally empathetic, and work with those who are suffering, distressed, traumatized or in pain, you may be more prone to burning out, depending on which form of empathy you use.

There are two types of empathy, (8) both of which help us understand others: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy tends to be an unconscious process in which you can ‘pick up’ the emotional distress, trauma of those you are working with. Unfortunately, when we share someone’s pain, it increases the risk of burnout. (7) and makes us less effective in our work.(9)

On the other hand, cognitive empathy enables us to accurately perceive and understand the other person’s world, without any sharing of emotions. (1) This type of empathy is protective against burnout, and it can also lead to better care (8) and more effective communication. (10)

The following table shows the main differences between the two types of empathy.

Emotional empathyCognitive empathy
Innate, unconscious processInnate, unconscious process.Conscious process that can be learned.
Sharing of emotions.Easier to remain emotionally detached and objective.
Often leads to over-identification with
patients and a loss of objectivity.
More able to communicate effectively and respond to patients’ needs.
Increased susceptibility to burnout.Protective against burnout.

You will know intuitively whether you use predominantly emotional or cognitive empathy in your work, even if you experience both forms of empathy in varying proportions in different situations.

CLICK HERE to download the article Empathy – Friend or foe? by Sarah Kuipers. This explains in greater depth the role of empathy in emotional contagion and burnout.

Awareness: the Key to Protecting Yourself

Once you are aware of a tendency to empathise emotionally, whenever possible, you can begin to pay attention to how others affect you, and whether you are feeling, for example, their grief, anger or anxiety. Deeopnding on the As soon as you are aware that you are mirroring, you can consciously un-mirror and ‘shift state’. One easy way to do this is to change your breathing, adopting a slow gentle pattern, which also helps you remain calm. If you work in private practice, between clients you can consciously re-connect with positive emotions. It is also important to find ways to ‘disconnect’ from work before going home to ensure that the distress and worries about work do not leach into your personal life.

If you want to discover more ways to protect yourself from the mental, emotional and physical impact of your work, many of these processes are explained in depth in my book The Thriving Giver.

  1. Rothschild B. Help for the Helper: self care strategies for managing burnout and stress. London: W.W. Norton and Company; 2006.
  2. Dimberg U, Thunberg M, Elmehed K. Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. 2000;11(1):86-9.
  3. McCraty C. The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromegnetic interactions within and between people. Institute of HeartMath; 2003. p. 1-20.
  4. Adolphs R. A landmark study finds that when we look at sad faces, the size of the pupil we look at influences the size of our own pupil. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Vol 1(1) Jun 2006, 3-4. 2006.
  5. Shaw J, Creed F. The Cost of Somatization. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 1991;35(2/3):307-12.
  6. Hatfield E, Cacioppo JT, Rapson RL. Emotional Contagion. New York: Cabridge University Press; 1994.
  7. Miller KI, Stiff JB, Ellis BH. Communication and empathy as precursors to burnout among human service workers. Communication Monographs. 1988;55(3):250-65.
  8. Maslach C. Burnout: the cost of caring. Cambridge, Mass.: Malor Books; 2003.
  9. Leiberg S, Anders S. The multiple facets of empathy: a survey of theory and evidence. In: Anders, Ende, Junghofer, Kissler, Wildgruber, editors. 1562006. p. 419-40.
  10. Hoekstra M. Am I teaching yet? : stories from the teacher-training trenches / edited by Molly Hoekstra. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; 2002. xv, 142 p. p.


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