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September 6, 2013
by Cindy Marie Hosszu

Don't Bring Me Down

September 6, 2013 08:18 by Cindy Marie Hosszu

Those Catchy Emotions:

It is Friday, and we are excited for the weekend.  That is, until we run across that one person who can always find the dark cloud on a sunny day.  No matter how determined we are to try to avoid them, it seems that something about them just zaps our excitement, and makes us feel grumpy or sad.  How is it that our moods seem to be contagious, and we take on the emotions of those around us?  It is not just your imagination.  There has been research that proves that negative, and positive, attitudes are catchy.[1]

Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson from the University of Hawaii suggested years ago that emotional mimicry had 3 stages of effect on our emotions. The first stage happens when, as people communicate, they continually mimic the facial expressions, postures, and other behaviors of the person with whom they are communicating.  The second stage is that people have an emotional experience based on their own facial muscles and other movement that is being mimicked.  The third stage is that by experiencing the first 2 stages, people “catch” the emotions of another person.[2]  We pick up the subtle facial expressions, body language, and other cues, and mimic them. This explains the impulse that happens when we see someone yawn.  We can’t help but yawn too.   Our body and mind associate the feeling from the change in muscle with the emotion that we have when we experience those muscle changes ourselves, and our emotions follow along with the physical changes we mimic from others. 

But, Wait, There’s More

A more recent study goes a step further by associating a risk factor for depression being contagious when a major life transition is involved. [3]  The study conducted at the University of Notre Dame followed 103 random pairs of college freshmen roommates.  Freshmen whose roommates had high cognitive vulnerability were more likely to take on their roommate’s cognitive style and develop similar vulnerabilities.  On the other hand, the students who were paired with low vulnerability roommates actually decreased their cognitive vulnerability.  Those in the study who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first 3 months of the study had almost twice the symptoms of depression at the 6 month period than the other group.  [4]

Cognitive vulnerability is a measure for assessing risk of depressive symptoms. Someone with a high vulnerability will perceive negative events as persistent over time, they think it will affect many areas of their life, think that it will lead to other negative consequences, and they also think that the negative event implies that there is something wrong with them.[5]  This way of viewing negative events increases the likely outcome of depression. 

The Notre Dame study confirms that our cognitive vulnerability can change with relationship to our social context.  If we place ourselves around positive people, we will find ourselves better equipped to fight off depressive symptoms than if we place ourselves around those who are not as capable of dealing with depression. 

Another study on the resilience of cognitive vulnerability to depression asserts that if an intervention takes place before cognitive vulnerability develops, or after it develops, but before depression, resilience is highly likely.[6]  In order to protect ourselves from the effects of being subjected to constant negativity, we can equip ourselves with the tools for resilience.  Realizing that we can be effected by others negative emotions, is likely enough for many, but counseling can help to avoid being caught up in the negative thinking.

Some Good News

The good news is that this contagious thinking works both ways.  Those who are around someone who is happy, also tend to catch the happiness.  So the way to break out of the negative social contagion is to interject the positive.  It is not always easy to change another person’s way of thinking, but understanding what causes some of the negative could help facilitate awareness and empathy for them without being influenced by their mood.

If we consciously notice when we are mimicking the person to whom we are speaking, we can prevent ourselves from following along, and possibly reverse the effect by smiling when we see that frown.  Not only will it prevent your body from assessing the muscle memory with the negative emotion, but you may just be able to turn the other person around by being that constant positive influence in their day.

Helping Hands

If you have events or people in your life that consistently bring you down, don’t be slow to seek help.  The sooner the negative is turned around the less chance there is for depression, or other lasting effects.  A therapist can help you by being equipped with the right tools for the situation, and protect your resilience. 

For more information that doesn’t bring you down, read Don’t Let Discouragement Discourage You.

[1] British Medical Journal (2008, December 4). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Retrieved from

[2] Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. (n.d.). Emotional Contagion and the Communication of Emotion. Progress in Communication Sciences, 14, 73-89. Retrieved from

[3] Association for Psychological Science (2013, April 18). Risk Factor for Depression Can Be ‘Contagious’. Retrieved from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Haeffel, G. J., & Et al (2008). Measuring Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression: Development and Validation of the Cognitive Style Questionnaire. Science Direct Clinical Psychology Review, 28, 824-836.

[6] Haeffel, G. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2007). Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression: Exploring Risk and Resilience. Child and Adolescent Pschiatric Clinics of North America, 16, 435-448.


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