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Live Life Fully: Can you catch a bad mood?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So, you're starting off your day. Random thoughts are running through your head as you get out of bed -- most likely about the tasks that lie ahead. With lots of practice, you might even be able to drown out some of the "busy brain" buzz with a thought or two of gratitude for your blessings.

Then it's off to the races. Routine tasks like brushing your teeth and taking a shower are breeding grounds for ideas, positive and negative. You have the opportunity to create your own mindset. (Inspirational messages on my bathroom mirror help me.)

Things are going along fairly well. In fact, you're feeling inspired and excited about the day.

And then it happens.

Your balloon bursts. Maybe it's that tone of voice from your spouse. Or the "attitude" from your kids. That email message you just opened. A blurb on the news. Bad weather. Co-workers. Whatever.

Before you know it, your thoughts are turning negative. Those things you were looking forward to have been drowned out. You're feeling resentful and angry.

What happened? Did you catch a bad mood?

As strange as it sounds, there's evidence to support this theory. Some of us are more sensitive to picking up these emotional contagions than others -- just like some catch a cold while others don't. If that's the case, can we fortify ourselves? Is there a vitamin for that?

While I don't know about a vitamin, I've uncovered some helpful hints through my research. Moods seem to infect people just like germs, according to Harvard-educated sociologist, therapist and author Martha Beck and Peter Totterdell, senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield in England.

Shielding yourself from a co-worker's or family member's negativity requires constructing a suit of psychological armor, Beck says. The strength of the armor is determined by the degree of "sponginess" you possess.

Sponginess has to do with your level of absorption. It's not good, bad, right or wrong. Some people are just more susceptible to taking on the emotions of others. That's why venom spewed by co-workers, family members or friends can have such an effect on some of us -- and not so much on others.

Here's a checklist, compiled by Beck, to help us "ARMOR UP":

A -- Acknowledge: Spongy people who feel uneasy in the presence of others often dismiss their feelings. A better idea is to let those emotions loose. Like a spiking fever in an ill patient, the wave of emotion is the beginning of the healing process.

R -- Recognize: What, exactly, does the emotion feel like? Does the feeling fit the person next to you better than it does you? If you're angry when they've been wronged or anxious when they're stressed out, this mismatch is evidence that a feeling is contagion based.

But, wait. Aren't contagions those uncontrollable epidemics depicted in major Hollywood blockbusters? Yikes! Just the image of those folks in contaminant-proof hazmat suits conjures up just how dangerous these emotional contagions can be.

M -- Monitor: Sometimes the difference between your feelings and those of the contagious person's are hard to describe. You might be able to tell if you track what happens in your mind before, during and, especially, after you've been around certain folks. Are you always angry after you lunch with a certain friend or nervous after a day with your high-maintenance family member?

O -- Observe: The most powerful tool for emotional detachment is observation. As a highly contagious person gets closer to you, watch the interaction and your resulting emotions -- as if you were an onlooker -- something like, "Huh, there's that surge of envy I always get around her."

Active observation can help even the spongiest person detach. Taking yourself out of the situation into the role of observer removes the emotional charge you feel. When you're more neutral, you can act more rationally.

R -- Relax: If simply noticing the extra sensations rattling around in your head isn't enough of a remedy, take a deep breath and exhale completely, while relaxing all your muscles. Take a potty break. Mental imagery helps, too. Picture the best time you've spent with your funniest friend -- or snuggling up with your dog or cat. Your negative energy will lessen.

U -- Understand: Contagious people aren't necessarily trying to upset you. Most aren't even aware their venting affects others. It's just the way they're "wired." If a stressed-out person wants to inflict his anxiety on you, and is successful, remind yourself you have tools to block their contagious germs.

P -- Protect: The last step in the "armor up" process is to maintain a mental image that connects you to the peaceful balance of your core self -- a happy time, your pet, etc. Burn this image in your mind just like you'd burn a CD. Then play it as much as possible to elevate your personal "vibration" higher on the harmony scale. Spend a few minutes with it every day -- while you're driving or in the shower. The idea is to make the image easily accessible -- so you can put on your armor at a moment's notice.

If you're a bit spongy and vulnerable to the unsettling energy of others, count yourself lucky. You've been given an advance warning to put on your armor, as author Beck suggests. Create your shining armor, keep your checklist in hand and head out into battle. Victory will be yours once you realize your vaccination from emotional germs lies within.

Now, go suit up!

Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications company specializing in advertising, public relations, government relations and interactive marketing. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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