Contagious Moods

Around the time one of my sons was 5 years old, I remember driving home from work feeling stressed. When I pulled into my driveway, I’d sit in the car for a full minute and breathe deeply to compose myself before entering the house.

I didn’t do this to relieve the stress from my job but to prepare myself for the daily minor catastrophe that awaited me at home. (There was always a baby sitter who greeted me with a catalog of skirmishes that had occurred between my two little boys.)

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By the time I walked up my front steps, I believed my exhaustion and worry were well hidden. That’s when my 5 year old would pull open the front door, take one look at me, and yell in his froggy little voice, “Be happy, Mommy!”

How could he read my mood so well? (Now that I think about it, even pets can sense when you’re distressed.)

Are moods contagious? Laughter fortunately is. One skiing vacation with my teenage sons we finished a glorious 9 hour day on the slopes of Vermont by collapsing into our respective beds in the motel room we shared. We were giddy with exhaustion.

One of my sons started laughing – I’ll call him the Giggler. That set me off, which set him off even more. My other son groaned, “Quiet, please. I’m trying to sleep.”

This only made the Giggler and I get more out of control. It was like the laughing fit I’d had with a psychotherapy client of mine. A half hour later we finally calmed down.

Contagious laughter is always welcome in my life.

But what about the contagion of a dark mood?

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Between my undergraduate education and graduate school, I worked as a secretary. One job was in a clerical pool of three women, one of whom kept up a litany of complaints all day long.

She was so predictable I could lip-sync her routine:

  1. Long, loud sigh.
  2. I’m tired.
  3. I’m hungry.
  4. I have a headache.

Brief pause.

  1. Long, loud sigh.
  2. I’m tired.
  3. I’m hungry.
  4. I have a headache.

It went on all day, every day. Trying to tune her out drained me of energy. I had to take a bathroom break every half hour to splash water on my face to keep from going insane or comatose.

All parents know that when our kids are sick or upset we walk around with a feeling of doom and foreboding. When they’re grown adults and out of the house, it’s no different. I have to remind myself that I’m not the one with the cold, and my son will be fine. He is probably already fine but forgot to call and tell me.

Human beings are empathetic creatures. Toddlers’ eyes fill with tears if they see another child cry. Adults find their throats tightening when someone tells them of a family tragedy.

Boys, girls, men, women. It’s no different. Men are taught to hide their feelings, but in my psychotherapy experience, the men tear through my tissue box as much as the women.

Is there a way to shield yourself from the contagion of someone else’s low mood? Yes.

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Is it important to shield yourself? Well, it’s good to have empathy so you can understand another person’s perspective. But when that empathy only makes you miserable, it’s no longer useful.

You need strategies to protect yourself. I’ll share some of mine in my next post.

Do you have a story of catching the bad mood of a co-worker, friend, or relative?

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