Are Emotions (and Their Regulation) Contagious?

How roommates can influence our emotional well-being

Posted Oct 20, 2014

Arriving at college constitutes a major adjustment for young Americans. They have to juggle living away from home (perhaps in a completely different part of the country), challenging themselves in the classroom, and learning to navigate a different (usually larger and more diverse) social environment. And on top of that, they frequently share close quarters with a complete stranger full of quirks and oddities (hello roommate who only ate hot dogs or roommate who slept all day!)

But roommates can actually influence a lot more than our eating habits or sleep schedules. The relationship with one’s college roommate is frequently complex, intense, and life altering (both in good and bad ways). Roommates can push us to try new exciting things and see the world from a different perspective. They can be our partners in crime as we go through the complicated process of becoming an adult. They can be a source of support when we are homesick, upset, or preoccupied. Many roommate relationships withstand the passage of time. How many times is someone’s college roommate a bridesmaid or groomsman?

However, our roommate relationships can, at times, play a detrimental role in our mental health. In one study, women whose college roommates dieted had higher scores on a measure of disordered eating and were more likely to engage in bulimic behaviors 10 years later (Keel et al., 2013). Another study found that one’s roommate’s anxiety could be “contagious” (Eisenberg et al., 2013). In other words, the authors observed that merely having an anxious roommate was associated with increases in one's anxiety. Similarly, another study found that if a roommate engaged in a form of thinking called rumination (dwelling on causes or consequences of negative events; see earlier post), the other roommate was more likely to start ruminating and consequently would be more likely to become depressed three months later!

 

Eating disorders, anxiety, and depression are all very serious conditions that can affect our self-esteem, productivity, and relationships with others. Many students will experience their first symptoms of these disorders at the time they enter college. While there has been a lot of progress in the past decades in term of elucidating risk factors for mental illnesses, a lot of questions remain. For example, we don’t know what are mechanisms responsible for the contagion of mental disorders. That is why the study of roommate relations has such great potential (to learn more about and support a study we are conducting at the Psychopathology & Affective Sciences lab, see link).

When you have a few minutes, see if you can remember what your college roommates were like. How were those relationships helpful? How were they harmful? If you did not go to college, think of other important relationships in your life. How do other people make you feel better? How do they make you feel worse?

Stay tuned for more posts on how relationships can shape our emotions!!

Copyright Amelia Aldao, Ph.D. & Kara Christensen A.B.