Before the 1980’s, firefighters used something called a life net, a device resembling a quilted trampoline, held beneath the window of a burning building to catch residents and save them from the flames. The life net is an apt parable for quality social networks. The flames of stress, anxiety, fear, grief, loneliness and pain can be escaped as we jump into that little quilted trampoline known as our friends and family. Having friends and family who can be counted on for support is well-documented to improve both physical and mental health. (1)
Share a positive emotion
You’ve heard that a smile is contagious. Emotions are contagious as well, as illustrated in a controversial study by Facebook on its users. For one week, Facebook manipulated the newsfeeds of thousands, reducing positive emotional content in one group, reducing negative emotional content in another and reducing posts at random in a control group. Where positive content was reduced, users responded by posting more negative items. The opposite happened where negative content was taken out — users found more positive things to post about. This phenomenon is called emotional contagion and it means that other people’s moods can affect our own. (2)
Are you feeling upbeat today? Is joy, enthusiasm, hope, love or gratitude dominating your emotional state? Pass it on. Send a text with the appropriate superlatives or emoticons to a friend. Share how you feel at the water cooler or over lunch. Infect your friends with a little of your own positivity today.
Share a negative emotion
We can’t be positive every day, but negative emotions are a little trickier to share. We don’t want to be that guy — the Debbie Downer that brings everyone down with negativity. Yet it is helpful to talk about negative feelings and experiences with a trusted friend who can provide sympathy, a listening ear and some needed perspective. In fact, sharing your feelings with a friend or family member is a key tool in our toolkit for managing negative emotions that can prove damaging to our health.
Tips for beneficial sharing:
- Don’t simply vent. In studies on venting, researchers have found that people do not feel better after reliving negative experiences and feelings when they do not try to make sense of them at the same time. When you share feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness, use words like because, realize and understand so that your brain can process these emotions in a more productive way. (3)
- Don’t wallow. Think back to those uncomfortable teen years when you and your BFF agonized over an awful moment every time you were together, ad infinitum. Psychologists have identified this kind of wallowing in negative emotions as co-rumination, which tends to make people feel worse. (4) Have your friend help you identify two or three action steps – things you can do to help a situation that is causing fear, anxiety, anger, etc.
- Build yourself up. If you start to wallow and your friend wallows right along with you, either encourage her to build you up or find someone who will. A fascinating study on the power of words showed that subjects’ behavior changed to reflect words suggested to them in a simple word unscramble. (5) The power of being told you are strong, wise, and resilient could help you to look at your problems through the lenses of strength, wisdom and resilience. Build yourself up as you work through negative emotions, and listen to those around you who do the same.
Read more on managing emotions
TED talk on emotional first aid
Emotions in the business world
How studying animal emotions is helping us treat depression
- Reblin M and Uchin BN. Social and emotional support and its implication for health. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008;21(2):201-205.
- Kramer ADI, Guillory JE, Hancock JT. Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Crossmark. 2014;111(24):8788-8790.
- Carpenter S. A new reason for keeping a diary. American Psychological Association. 2001;32(8):68..
- Healthy living: Talking about your problems – does it make things better or worse? WABI TV5 website. Aug 6, 2013.
- Salmansohn K. How not to talk about your problems. The Huffington Post. Updated Sep 1, 2011.