Contagious is a word that will likely conjure up a negative feeling associated with something like the spread of a disease. Sometimes, we use the word positively like in “laughter is contagious”. Let’s discuss how anger and compassion are contagious, and how we can become empowered to spread positivity and good rather than this pervasive negativity that keeps us stressed.
Anger is contagious and mostly effortless
First, I’m sure that you’ve already noticed intuitively that anger is contagious. When someone gets yelled at, they might yell back or become angry and end up passing that sentiment onto the next unsuspecting person who crosses their path.
When we are confronted by someone who is angry, our brain can perceive it as a threat which activates the fight or flight mechanism. This mechanism responds to threat and fear and gives a person the “tools” they need to survive. These include physiological changes like increased heart rate, reduced digestion, and increased breathing. There are also cognitive or perceptual changes like narrowed vision, a reduced capacity for rational thinking and emotional reactivity, which includes the expression of anger.
Expressing anger makes us appear strong and fierce when we are internally afraid or feeling vulnerable. It covers up our fears so we are better able to survive. This happens quite automatically which makes it hard not to react in situations that feel like attacks or threats. If an angry person activates your own anger response, then you might end up passing this along to someone else without even realizing it. This is how anger is contagious.
Compassion is also contagious, but takes a little more effort
So what about compassion? Compassion is the willingness or urge to act to alleviate someone else’s pain or suffering, or otherwise support them when they are feeling negatively. Compassion is contagious too but there’s a significant difference between compassion and anger. Anger is quite automatic, and is self-serving by covering up fear and hiding deeper feelings of vulnerability.
Being compassionate requires a person to choose a certain level of discomfort to help someone else. It’s almost like giving someone a crutch so they can find their footing – and we must bear the burden for a while. This requires us to experience some level of vulnerability – and we know our brain doesn’t like that and wants to try and protect us. We have to choose to teach our brain that this kind of vulnerability is actually a good thing.
Choose compassion – it’s rewarding
Compassion takes a more deliberate, conscious and courageous effort than anger does. We are sharing with someone else a feeling of security – we are taking on some of their vulnerability. For example, compassionately listening to and supporting someone who’s loved one just passed away means we feel empathy for their loss. We might start to think about loved ones we have lost, and experience unpleasant emotions ourselves.
How is compassion contagious? First, when we feel safe and secure, the choice to act compassionately is easier because we aren’t in a negative state where we are in “survival mode”. In this “safe” state we can consciously decide to be a little vulnerable without feeling overwhelmed, uneasy, or stressed. When we act compassionately, we are transitioning someone from a negative state to a more positive, safe and secure one. It helps set them up to be compassionate towards someone else.
Second, compassion makes us feel good. There’s ample research supporting this. When people feel safe and secure they are more effective and productive, they can think more clearly and they experience more positive emotions and less negative ones. Compassion has many great benefits. With less anger, fear and stress we also tend to focus less on negative things and more on positive ones.
So I challenge you to choose to spread compassion. Choose to care about how people feel, and to do what you can to help with honest intent. Choose to accept some discomfort, burden or small sacrifice in exchange for the positive feelings compassion has been proven to create in those who employ it.
If you want to improve your ability to manage your survival state, reduce stress and shift yourself into a more positive and “safe” state more often, check out this life-changing online training course.