Emotional Contagion

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“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”
~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

 

This is a tense time for all of us.  We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the stock market is in free fall and everywhere you turn there is division and discord.  We seemed to be gripped in fear, and the panic is going viral.  And even though we diligently wash our hands, avoid crowds and practice “social distancing”, we are still contagious and can infect our dogs – not with a virus, but with anxiety. 

Our feelings and emotions, and how we express them, can directly trigger similar feelings and emotions in our dogs.  When we become excited and happy, our dogs tend to become excited and happy along with us.  When we are anxious and stressed, our dogs can “catch” those feelings from us as well.  The closer our relationship is, the more contagious we are.  This phenomena is known as Emotional Contagion, and is defined as the: “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”   

These days when we are all on edge, we have to think about how we’re effecting, or infecting our dogs.  

This hit home for me the other day when I was sitting on the couch watching the news with my dogs Bodhi and Bhakti.  I was paying attention to the “talking heads” on television and their gloomy report, when I noticed that Bhakti jumped off the couch and went upstairs.  Now, the only time she really does this is when there is tension in the room, such as when my wife and I engage in lively discussions, so I wondered why she did this when I was the only person there.  I looked over at Bodhi, and he had a worried expression on his face.  My first thought was that they had heard a noise outside that disturbed them, but as I got up to look out of the window, I noticed that Bodhi was fixing his worried gaze on me, as if I had done something to make him anxious.  I realized, in fact, I had.   I was agitated and upset while engrossed in the news report about the corona virus pandemic, and Bhakti and Bodhi became “infected” by my agitated state.  It was a clear case of emotional contagion.

I immediately turned off the television, sat down and took a few deep, mindful breaths.  This is like hitting a reset button and I felt much more relaxed.  I smiled at Bodhi, who was still a bit unsure.  After a few moments of talking to him and rubbing his chest, which he loves, he calmed right down.  A moment after that, Bhakti came back into the room with her “Is everything alright?” look, and she calmed down as well.  I gave them both a hug and we all went outside to play.

I have always depended on my dogs to help ease my own stress, and now it’s my turn to do the same for them.  I making every effort to spread good feelings in order to infect my dogs with love and calmness, and taking specific actions every day to maintain this, even as the world’s chaos surrounds us. 

First, I limit my exposure. Not just to crowds and large gatherings, but to the news and social media. I only read the latest updates and then close my computer. Period. I use this time to connect more with my dogs by taking a walk together, playing in the yard, or simply sitting on the couch with them while watching Netflix. 

Second, we practice more Shared Mindfulness and metta meditation together.  This helps reduce our stress and bring us closer together as friends. 

Finally, I practice reverse social distancing and engage in random acts of affection – they get hugs and kisses often throughout the day, even more than usual.  This affection seems to be going viral, as I’ve seen them spread this amongst each other.  I even witnessed Bhakti give my cat Rocko a kiss, which she never does. 

I’m confident this crisis will be over in time, and that our lives will return to a state of normalcy. Until then, my dogs and I will be certain to fight this viral infection with viral affection – and from that, hopefully, we will never recover. 

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Author: Path of Friendship™

Corey Cohen is an animal behaviorist, mindfulness and emotional intelligence instructor with over 33 years of helping people connect to their dogs on a deeper level. His unique Mindfulness-Based Animal Behavior Therapy™ and his Path of Friendship™ programs are inspiring alternatives to standard dog training. His mindfulness seminars for individuals, universities, wellness centers, and top corporations has helped reduce stress and anxiety and given people a fresh perspective on life. He is the owner of A New Leash on Life Animal Behavior Services in Northeastern PA and Northern NJ. He’s also the owner of Awakenings Meditation in Northeastern PA.

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