It seems that COVID keeps coming out with new variants. A couple weeks after my fiftieth birthday, I just got my second booster. As a Health Department employee, I encourage people to keep getting vaccinated, washing your hands, wearing masks, and distancing. Even though more recent strains are not as deadly as the original variants, this virus still kills. But it’s not just the disease that’s deadly.
Emotional Contagion: Deadly or Life-Giving
Since the beginning of COVID-19, there has been an increase in depression, suicide, domestic violence, addiction, homelessness, and countless other scourges that spread during a pandemic. One thing builds on another. Fear leads to despair and hopelessness, desperation, and violence. There’s more than just one disease out there–and we could be the source of transmission. Emotional Contagion can be just as deadly–or alternatively, life-giving. According to Clara Morris’ article, “Emotional Contagion: Everything You Need to Know,”
Emotional Contagion is the ability to influence the emotions and behaviors of others, either directly or indirectly. The etymology of “Contagion” in emotional contagion comes from the conscious and unconscious acts of sharing our emotions with others via verbal or physical expression. Though the word “Contagion” sounds intimidating, emotional contagion is used as a strategy in work settings and relationships. Our brain adapts to an “emotional culture,” and it helps us to read other’s emotions to show us how appropriate our responses should be. Neurologists have found that mirror neurons are responsible for this phenomenon and are a useful learning tool.
The Bible on Emotional Contagion
Emotional contagion can be a bane or a blessing. One man’s depression can lead to another’s sorrow, but one woman’s joy begets another’s well-being. Proverbs 13:20 NRSV says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” It matters what kind of influences you expose yourself to–and it’s important how you share yourself with others. This is why Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matthew 5:13 NRSV).” He wanted his disciples to share their flavor with others but cautioned against allowing the world to cause us to lose our savor.
Yes, it’s possible to “catch” emotions from other people. We become like the negative people we spend our time around if we don’t wear our proverbial PPE. But we can also give our positive emotions away. If you want to be a person who brings healing to the world, it’s important to remember the concept of emotional contagion. In his training, “The Body Keeps the Score: Trauma Healing with Bessel Van de Kolk” the titular presenter said, “People can borrow our stillness from us.” Or, when a person is struggling to believe, they can borrow on our faith.
What’s Your Intention?
When it comes to emotional contagion, the difference between whether you’re a catcher or a spreader depends on your intention. Your mother always cautioned you about the influences of bad friends. But Jesus spent his time with sex workers, people with addiction, and other “sinners” in the eyes of the religious leaders. His intention determined whether his influence would spread, or whether he would be contaminated himself. Your intention will do the same. If you are a person of peace, you’ll spread that peace, just by being yourself. If you determine to share unconditional love, people around you are going to catch it. This is how we will change the world.
We’re not quite past the COVID Times. The past few years have brought more than just viral infection. These days it’s friend against friend, brother versus sister, on issues of politics, religion, vaccinations, racism, guns, abortion, and more. But remember that emotional contagion works for building people up as much as tearing them down. Just as a vaccination works through injection, being a Jesus-follower means injecting peace into the world. It means being a voice of compassion, love, and grace–and having faith that the more we spread these things, the more viral they will become.