While the news is dominated by concern about catching covid, there is another powerful contagion at work that has been propelling individuals to act in both constructive and destructive ways. Emotional contagion-the idea of “catching a feeling” from someone- is a phenomenon that occurs universally and on a daily basis. Individuals are constantly exchanging emotions in a reciprocal fashion and these transfers of feelings, which are often occurring invisibly, nevertheless, have the power to influence our actions. Evidence for the nonverbal nature of emotional communication comes from observing a mother/infant dyad. Infants prior to acquiring language communicate their needs to mothers who will experience the feelings induced in them by their babies who need to be held, changed, fed, etc. and respond to meet those needs without an exchange of words.
In our current world, emotions have been “high” regarding not only covid, but also racial injustice, social inequality, and the constant changes the pandemic has spawned in the world of work, and our social lives, necessitating a need to survive these forces and re-invent ourselves and our way of living. The powerful emotional communications emanating from the need to address longstanding inequities has led to constructive protests and actions as well as the destructive violence. The powerful nature of the group on its’ members has propelled individuals in both directions.
Apart from the earth-shaking events that will change the way we live, individuals still struggle with tolerating emotions that are intolerable to them. Losing a job, being unable to see and touch relatives, and friends, and dealing with the numerous challenges to our emotional well being brought on by uncertainty induce in individuals’ feelings that can be overwhelming. While tolerating intolerable feelings is necessary during ordinary times, the need to navigate intolerable emotions during covid has upped the ante. Consequently, it is important to be constantly aware that we are subject to being contaminated by emotions that can propel our behavior in constructive and destructive ways. Being able to hold these feelings long enough to understand them and have them inform our decisions is paramount. The danger, however, is that intolerable feelings are often too hot to hold and like passing the hot potato, we rid ourselves of them by passing them off to someone else, even an innocent bystander. People are driving more aggressively these days and being aggressive in word and deed as a result of off-loading emotions they cannot digest. At the same time, others are performing divine acts, the best evidence of this are the medical professionals who “run into the fire” by attempting to save the lives of those stricken with the virus.
Paying close attention to how we feel, where this feeling came from, and holding it long enough to remove any toxic elements is necessary in order to make constructive decisions, especially now where we are feeling powerless, frustrated, and impatient.