Misery loves company, right?

You’ve probably experienced the truth behind this saying firsthand by seeking out sad music when feeling down or venting to loved ones when angry or upset.

Things can work the other way, too. Hearing a mournful song when you’re having a great day can quickly change your mood. If you’re the one offering a listening ear, you might feel sad or distressed upon hearing about a friend’s troubles.

How does this happen? Can emotions really spread like a cold or the flu?

Actually, yes. Researchers call it emotional contagion. It happens when you mimic, usually without conscious effort, the emotions and expressions of people around you.

Emerging neuroscience offers one possible explanation for this phenomenon: the mirror neuron system.

The concept of mirror neurons originated when researchers studying the brains of macaque monkeys discovered that certain neurons started firing when the monkeys did something and when they watched other monkeys do the same thing.

It seems that a similar process might happen in humans. Some experts believe that the mirror neuron system extends beyond physical actions and might explain how we experience empathy for others.

Experts studying emotional contagion believe the process generally happens in three stages: mimicry, feedback, and contagion (experience).

Mimicry

In order to mimic someone’s emotions, you have to first recognize the emotion. Emotional cues are often subtle, so you likely aren’t always conscious of this realization.

Generally, mimicry happens through body language. When talking to friend, for example, you might begin unconsciously copying their pose, gestures, or facial expressions.

If you began the conversation with some anxiety or distress, but if your friend’s face seems relaxed and open, your own expression may relax as well.

Mimicry can help you relate to others by understanding their experience, so it’s a key aspect of social interaction. But it’s just one part of the process of emotional contagion.

Feedback

By mimicking an emotion, you begin to experience it. In the example above, your relaxed facial expression might help you feel calmer.

Dr. Maury Joseph, a psychologist in Washington D.C., suggests this can also happen with more deep-seated emotional experiences and moods, such as depression.

Someone with depression, for example, might express their feelings through body language, speech patterns, or facial expressions as well as words. “This can induce a similar emotional reaction in people who have more vulnerability to these cues,” he explains.

Contagion

Mimicking an emotion typically evokes that emotion in you, and it then becomes part of your own experience. You begin to express it or relate it to others in the same way, and the process of contagion is complete.

Emotional contagion isn’t always a bad thing. Who doesn’t want to spread happiness? But there’s also a downside: Negative emotions can spread just as easily.

“Nobody is invulnerable to emotional contagion,” Joseph says. But it is possible to observe negative emotions and support people around you without catching a case of their blues. Here’s how.

Surround yourself with things that make you happy

You’re less likely to succumb to someone else’s bad mood if you keep your surrounding environment full of things that bring you joy. If you tend to come across a lot of negativity at work, make your office or desk a “happy place” for yourself.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring in plants or even fish, if your workplace allows it.
  • Put up photos of your pet, partner, children, or friends at your workspace.
  • Use headphones to listen to your favorite podcasts or music while you work.

Even if you begin feeling like you’re coming down with a bad case of negativity, your surroundings may help you feel better.

Offer positivity

If you don’t want another person’s negativity to affect you, try turning the tables by smiling and trying to keep your voice cheerful. If you’re already starting to feel the effects of someone’s bad move, you might feel less like smiling, but it can help to give it a try.

Smiling may help you feel more positive, but the other person might also mimic your body language and catch your mood instead, making it a win-win situation.

Recognize what’s happening

If you’re picking up on someone else’s mood, you may not realize it right away. You may just feel bad without really understanding why.

“It can take a lot of self-awareness to realize someone else’s behavior is making you feel upset,” Joseph says. Realizing how your feelings relate to another person’s experience can make it easier to address them without acting on them.

If you can learn how to acknowledge when someone’s negative mood is affecting you, you can practice removing yourself from the situation.

Laugh it up

Laughing can help improve your mood and relieve stress. It can also spread to people around you.

When you feel negativity creeping in, share a funny video, tell a good joke, or enjoy your favorite sitcom for a boost of positivity.

Don’t take it personally

Emotional contagion relates to empathy. If someone you care about is having a hard time emotionally, you may respond by unconsciously absorbing their experience and connecting with them that way. This is just part of being human.

Try to keep in mind that:

  • you aren’t responsible for their feelings
  • you may not be able to help
  • they’re sharing their experience in the only way they know

This can be particularly tough if a loved one is dealing with a chronic mental health condition, such as depression. You can’t be of much help to them if you’re not feeling well, either. It’s also never a bad idea to encourage them to talk to a therapist.

You could also consider seeking support for yourself, as many therapists work with partners and family members of people living with mental health issues.

People can’t always put into words how they feel, but they can usually give a general idea through their body language and other subtle cues. The downside to this is that negative emotions can spread, especially through workplace environments and social media.

You can’t get a shot to prevent emotional contagion, but you can keep it from bringing you down.


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.