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Fear/Anxiety is a contagious emotionInoculating ourselves against other people's anxieties



A bunch of monkeys are gorging on fruits in a forest tree. One of the monkeys spots something like a snake and gives a call. All the fifty-odd monkeys go on a high alert even though they have not seen the snake by themselves. The alertness saves them in case that is a snake otherwise is one of the false alarms.


Deers grazing peacefully on the grasslands and one of them spots a movement in the bushes. Could it be a predator? It goes on high alert. Its anxiety soon spreads to the entire herd and some of them start moving away and that movement makes others move away and in a jiffy, the entire herd is on the run. The spreading of fear/anxiety saved them for one more day.


We humans go through myriad emotions in a day - sadness, anger, guilt, happiness anxiety etc. Of all the emotions, fear/anxiety is the most contagious. We normally don’t go through sadness, anger and guilt if one of the people around us in our home or office is going through that. But just one member of the family has to become anxious and the emotion spreads to everyone in the house. The boss has to show some anxiety and all the staff will experience that. We are hardwired to catch anxiety from others around us whether they are related or not. If you looked at the forest examples, it was the spread of anxiety that helped in the survival of that species. Fear is a protective emotion. It is enough if one member in the crowd notices a danger whether real or imaginary, we will believe him and take action. That is survival. It is that contagious nature of fear/anxiety that has helped us come this far.

But today, we are not staying in a jungle and we are not under constant threat. We are staying in a relatively stable environment and our lives are not in constant danger. But our threat alert system has not changed. It is still geared for the old life in the jungle.

Today we don’t have to take on the anxiety of others around us if that is not a threat to us. When one person in the room/house becomes anxious that anxiety is conveyed to us. At this point, we can stop and ask ourselves if this threat is something that will affect us or is it something personal for the other person. "Whose anxiety am I feeling? If it is not a threat to us, we can take a few deep breaths and tell ourselves, “I am safe. I am secure” and not allow that anxiety to touch us. Becoming aware that anxiety is contagious, examining the threat when it occurs and weighing its direct effect on us, helps us to battle other people’s anxiety and protect ourselves from being affected by it. If we don't contract that anxiety, perhaps we will be in a good position to help others who are experiencing it.

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