It’s cold and flu season here in the North and so I have recently encountered many people who are either getting over a bad cold or a case of the flu recently. The first words I usually hear from someone who is on the tail end of being sick are, “I’m pretty sure I’m not contagious anymore, so I don’t think you have to worry.” The recovering person is usually, however, careful not to shake hands, just in case there is still a slight chance that what they have might still be contagious.
We, of course, know that illnesses like a cold or the flu can spread easily if we are not careful. What we may have not given as much thought to is the fact that emotional illnesses or “dis-eases” can spread just as easily as physical ones, and in some cases an emotional “dis-ease” can be just as dangerous and destructive. If a child grows up in a family, for example, where they witness abusive fighting and arguing, they are much more likely to engage in the same behavior when they become adults. If a child grows up in a home where alcohol or other drugs are abused, they are more likely to do the same in later life as well. These kind of “dis-eases” are clearly contagious.
Even less obvious emotional “dis-eases” can be contagious and destructive, too. Imagine, for example, a parent who comes home from work every day angry and agitated because they don’t like their job. If they are not careful, their anger and agitation will likely spill out onto everyone else in the home, infecting them with negative thoughts and feelings as well. In no time, the whole household will likely feel unhappy and people will either begin to be critical of one another, or to isolate. It’s as if the parent came home from work with a horrible cough, and then proceeded to spread the germs around by coughing all over everyone. If this pattern of “coughing on others” happens on a regular basis, the pain and suffering that results can gradually erode the fabric of the family.
What can we do to prevent this kind of “emotional dis-ease” from infecting ourselves or others? If a family member or friend is a source of negativity, sarcasm, cynicism. or bad moods we can compassionately–but firmly–reflect this back to them. We can kindly and respectfully ask them to reflect upon the causes of their negativity and ask them to stop “coughing or sneezing” on us. When we do this we want to stay connected with them as they try to address their “dis-ease,” and share with them how much we appreciate their taking our concerns seriously. Holding up a mirror up to their behavior and supporting them in making changes does two things. It protects us from passively becoming infected, and it shows our love and concern for the other person.
We also need to be willing to hold ourselves accountable, knowing that any of us can catch an emotional “dis-ease.” If upon reflection we realize that we have become infected, we will first need to minimize the spreading of our unpleasantness to others. And if we realize at some point that our “dis-ease” is chronic we may need get help to treat it-just as we would if we had a chronic physical ailment.
Our negativity, sarcasm, cynicism and bad moods are indeed contagious–that’s the bad news. The good news is that our positive moods–our joy, peace, humor, love and happiness are also contagious. We can as just as easily “infect” people around us with our positive energy as we can with our negative energy.
So when it comes to our emotional wellness (or lack there of) the answer to the question, “Are you and I contagious?” is always, “Yes we are!” The next question to consider then is whether we are contagious with–negativity or positivity–and what kind of emotional energy are we spreading to our loved ones, friends, and the wider community.