The Soul’s Journey – Emotional Contagion

Recently I facilitated a small group who meet each month for spiritual support and guidance. We begin with a meditation and then each person checks in with something from their current story. One member shared her deep sense of loss and grief on the demise of a partner a year earlier.

The group does not interact during this sharing but save questions and comments until the end. On this occasion another person shared her how touched she was and launched into her own story of her own loss twenty years earlier.

I could feel a shift in the emotions of the group and thought I needed to try and moderate this so I asked a question of the person who seemed the most composed. Her response was to begin to cry. I realized then that the whole group had descended into grief.

For a brief moment I experienced a sense of overwhelment and sat back wondering what was the appropriate response? In this situation I have learned to take a few slow, steady breaths so for a moment I just sat awaiting inspiration and it came. The person who had accelerated this spiral of grief began to apologize for taking so much time sharing her old story. Then to my amazement every member of the group shifted from grief into caretaking her.

It afforded me the opportunity to talk about changes of state and that we all needed some tools or activities to manage our own feelings. It is not about repression or suppression but rather being able to shift from feelings to a more composed state. Exercise is an excellent way to create endorphins that help to calm anxiety. I find humour, walking in nature and beauty and sharing the story with someone can really help me shift.

The following day I began to explore the phenomenon of what I learned is called “emotional contagion”. Somewhat to my surprise this is an accepted psychological term and that most emotions can be transferred. I think we have all experienced being sucked into vortex by negative people and who hasn’t found themselves laughing without quite knowing why?

Recently in a podcast on Tapestry (a CBC program – a weekly exploration of spirituality, religion and the search for meaning) I listened to Dr. Steven Stosny talk about Headline Stress disorder and how people not only become more angry and resentful after being exposed to headline news, their feelings can be picked up by others. In couples counselling he finds his clients are more resentful and more angry after listening to the news.

When the next group came around I had an amazing example of both positive emotional contagion and shifting of state. The first person to share expressed her negativity towards Christmas as it reminds her of her partner who died only a couple of years previously. Once again I could feel the empathy of the group shifting. However at the end of her sharing she drew an angel card from the bowl on the table. It said “Flexibility” and her outrage was such that the whole group broke into laughter and the mood immediately shifted.

What popped into my head were the words of the Sufi poet hafiz “What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts? It is the glorious sound of a Soul waking up.” (interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky)

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