The Other Pandemic
The highly contagious pandemic of fear and anxiety in the time of COVID.
Posted August 25, 2020
With my iPad and pasta salad in front of me, I sat down for a Zoom dinner with my friends. News of our families, politics, and swapping recipes soon gave way to the topic that is unendingly on all of our minds: the coronavirus pandemic.
My friend Claire looked worried as she shared her concerns: Would there be a second wave of COVID this winter? Is it safe to return her children to school? When will there be a vaccine and will it be effective? While I started the dinner relaxed, I quickly felt my chest tighten and suddenly felt nervous. I stepped away from the call for a moment and found myself wondering: How did I quickly become so anxious during my meal?
Just as we have been navigating the COVID pandemic for months, there is another pandemic we are simultaneously facing – and one that is equally as contagious: the rapid spread of anxiety and fear. Wanting to learn more, I reached out to Sigal Barsade, a Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to learn from her expertise on a phenomenon called emotional contagion.
Emotional contagion is the transfer of moods or emotions from one person to another. As Professor Barsade explained, “contagion is the way groups live, emotionally. It is the communication between people that makes them a group from an emotional perspective.”
Emotional contagion is largely automatic and comes from behavioral mimicry of one another’s expressions; it begins with infants as young as six weeks old who mimic the caregiver’s facial expressions, body language, and voice tone. Then, through a variety of processes, the person begins to actually feel the emotions and "contage" (or catch) the feelings from others.
The process of emotional contagion quickly becomes the glue of social interaction, and it occurs both consciously and unconsciously with positive and negative emotions throughout the lifespan. Emotional contagion can occur among groups of all sizes and can be induced by one or more people. This contagion can play a role in all emotions including joy, fear, anxiety, happiness, anger, and loneliness.
Given that each person can conduct – or share his or her moods with others – it also means that it is easy to “infect” those around us with our feelings. Indeed, most people are unaware that they have caught the feelings of others, a process that can be especially problematic during these corona times in the face of social media, a neighbor who is prone to catastrophic thinking, or a friend who is in a panic. While negative emotions can help signal if there is an issue – such as inducing feelings of panic, fear, and anxiety if you find yourself in a burning building – the emotions can be less helpful for an ongoing situation. As Barsade advises, “Make sure that your emotion is appropriate for the situation, as our moods and emotions also impact our cognition and behavior.”
In speaking to Barsade, I realized that I had caught Claire’s worry. Claire is very anxious about the pandemic, so I asked Barsade: What should I do to be supportive of my friend but also keep myself calm?
Barsade had a few suggestions: First, she shared that it is important to be aware that emotional contagion exists, as that in its own right can make one better able to avoid it. Second, she advises being aware of one’s susceptibility to contagion, as there is a spectrum of contagion, with some more susceptible than others. She encouraged me to reflect as to whether feelings are organically my own or whether the feelings stem from what has been caught from others. Third, she shared that paying attention to the emotions of the other can make me more contagious to catching how the other feels. For example, I would likely be more contagious to someone I focus on a lot, like a boss, a political figure, or a close friend. The closer my emotions are to the emotions I am surrounded by (for example, if I am nervous and my boss is in a panic), the more likely that I will catch the other’s feelings.
In order to combat the negative effects of contagion, and to increase positivity, Barsade suggested that if it is a situation in which you can actually do something to help the person reduce the source of the negative emotion they are feeling, try to do so. If you can’t, then she encouraged me to focus on being calm and serene, to stay in touch with loved ones, and to continue to show kindness and empathy towards others – including those who are the source of the negative emotional contagion. Especially during these stressful pandemic times, it is important to continue to engage in self-care rituals, like getting a good night’s sleep, eating three balanced meals a day, and exercising. Limiting media and social media can make an enormous difference. She also recommended meditation, practicing gratitude, being optimistic, and helping others.
Barsade emphasized that for people who are already highly anxious, it is even more important to be vigilant. For example, it might be helpful to limit one's news sources or social interactions with others who are highly stressed, or to change the topic of conversation to something calmer. Barsade advised me, “Focus on being around people and environments who will be calming.” The reasoning is because, “What makes us more positive in general are positive, high-quality social connections. Make sure that you are staying in touch with people who make you feel good. This does not have to be a time of loneliness.”
I have another Zoom dinner planned with my friends, including Claire, for next week. This time, should she share her fears related to the pandemic, I will use Barsade’s advice on emotional contagion to enjoy my meal and be supportive of Claire but not to take on her feelings of anxiety. As the end of this coronavirus pandemic is unknown, I will focus on lowering my risk of contagion in the face of this second pandemic of fear.
Barsade, S., Coutifaris, C., Pillemer, J. (2018). Emotional contagion in organizational life. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 137-151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2018.11.005.