A Comparison Of Empathy For Humans And Empathy For Animals Emotional Contagion: Being an "Emotional Sponge"

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Emotional Contagion: Being an "Emotional Sponge"

Empathy is a universal human ability.

When it is truly absent or deficient, as in cases of autism or psychopathy, we describe it as a serious mental illness. However, like most other human qualities, empathy may be naturally stronger in some individuals. It can also be consciously or unconsciously encouraged or defended. As a result, some individuals will be very and almost overly empathetic with others. They often describe themselves as “emotional sponges,” helplessly absorbing the feelings, good and bad, of those around them.

Empathy is the earliest form of communication.

Human beings communicate through empathic connection from birth. Mothers and babies accurately read each other’s emotional communications. This ability is never lost, and we all use empathic understanding of other people’s feelings to round out and color what they are telling us. We all know that the same words delivered in a gentle or sarcastic tone can have very different implications and emotional effects.

However, we rarely think about this subliminal communication and are usually not aware of how we do it.

Anxiety and anger are the most “attractive”

While all emotions can be transmitted empathetically between people, the most problematic feelings are those of anxiety and anger.

There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

All higher animals are sensitive to environmental danger signals from others around them. An alarm signal prepares the individual for self-defense action, either fight or flight. Readiness for action involves vascular, muscular respiratory and endocrine responses which we then experience as PHYSICAL feelings of anxiety and tension.

Interpersonal Signal Reading – Visual and vocal changes communicate anxiety.

As early as 1949, psychological researchers such as Jurgen Reusch observed that in humans, the transmission of danger signals can be visible: sweating, tense postures, shallow breathing, flushing, general discomfort.

There are also audible cues: voices may become high-pitched or shrill, pitch may rise or alternate arrhythmically between high and low, there may be rushing or hastening of speech, lack of pauses, interruptions in others, changes in the speed of speech. , or inappropriate laughter. The opposite look is also indicative of anxiety: slurred speech, long pauses, and no introductory words like “ah” or “uh.”

Semantic or textual data.

Reusch also found that when anxious conversations are transcribed, anxiety can be signaled in the conversation by an increase in the number of words related to feelings, personal pronouns, and subjective qualifiers, which are recognized by the reader as indicators of self-concern. Anger is signaled by expressions of self-motivated action, “doing” rather than “feeling.” By comparison, a relaxed attitude is characterized by an increase in the number of concrete nouns and objective qualifications.

All these details and more are unconsciously or semi-consciously absorbed by a conversational partner or bystander and intuitively understood as signals of alarm or excitement that can then cause anxiety or excitement in them as well.

Emotional contagion researcher Elaine Hatfield notes that human beings have a “tendency to automatically imitate and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally” (Hatfield et al, 1992). .

Mirror neurons are the basis for empathy

Recent research has revealed a sophisticated system of “mirror neurons” in the brain. Mirror neurons sit next to motor neurons that send movement signals to our muscles. Mirror neurons, however, fire when we observe gestures, especially intentional gestures in others. In fact, when we watch another person do something, we experience the gestures themselves in a microscopic way from within. Most of the time this doesn’t translate into action, but most of us have had the experience of swaying slightly in sympathy with the moves of a skater or skier we see on TV, or of “jumping in our seat” to cheer on a favorite. athlete to add more speed to a race. These are ways in which we show that we are participating empathetically in the efforts we see in others.

However, participating in the experience of others is not limited to copying gestures.

As I have described above, there are many “gestures” in the sense of the physical and verbal changes we observe in others that relate to states of feeling. These indications are also responses from our mirror neurons and this is now suggested to be the basis of sensitivity. Unfortunately, it is also the root of emotional attachment and leads to situations where a person can be unconsciously and unwillingly “captured” by the feelings of those around them.

Reducing this tension, good and bad ways

When tension and emotional contamination are mild, it may be possible to simply shake it off or relieve it with small reactions like a nervous laugh.

When stronger, a person may intuitively try to cope with this interpersonal pressure by trying to calm or soothe the other so that they stop sending signals of anxiety or anger. In this way they behave as a good parent might when a child has communicated their concern.

However, if the emotional pressure on the other is not easily relieved, a sensitive person may find themselves drawn into a constant cycle of caring and comforting the other, who may become exploitative or abusive.

  • An example of this might be a sibling who constantly calls and vents all of his or her anxiety and tension on their sister late at night. The caller leaves the exchange feeling temporarily relieved and reassured and the call recipient is now left tossing and turning all night worrying about their sibling

The constant experience of emotional attachment is “devastating” and over time can cause harm.

It is one of the features of this form of unconscious, non-verbal communication that the sender often tries to get rid of or “evacuate” feelings that they do not like to feel or think, in themselves and also in others. As a result, they can be surprisingly unempathetic to the emotional states they evoke in the recipient. They will often deny that they even have feelings of anxiety or anger themselves and may attack their partner for showing signs of such weakness when they respond with empathic contagion.

This leaves the receiver in the difficult psychological position of assuming that he is the only one who feels so anxious, angry or upset.

  • As a result of denying the other, the feelings that are triggered through emotional contagion are often not recognized as arising in the other, and the recipient may try to explain away these strange and uncomfortable feelings as if they were their own.
  • This leads to internal conversations where the sensitive and responsive individual may lash out at himself for always being “anxious for no reason” and worrying about his health or mental stability.
  • Left carrying the burden of unpleasant feelings, the recipient may seek relief in unhealthy ways, such as overeating, drinking, smoking, shopping, video games, or other diversions.

Emotional contagion strikes a chord with the recipient

“We are all more simply human than otherwise”

Empathy and emotional contagion work because all human beings are susceptible to feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, and despair in some circumstances. Emotional contagion rings our personal bells and makes us hunt within ourselves for an explanation of our uncomfortable feelings.

  • The receiver of emotional attachment can sometimes create problems even unconsciously for himself because he can be pushed towards weave situations which will extenuate their unexplained anxiety, depression, hopelessness or despair.

Awareness helps.

Being aware that it is possible to empathetically resonate with another person’s feelings can go a long way in preventing worse outcomes. It may allow the sensitive person to ask, “Are these feelings really more appropriate for my partner than for me at this moment?”

Knowing that emotions are contagious can give you a clue as to how you can regulate your experiences of contagion. Sometimes it can be emotionally wise to limit the time you spend in the psychological environments of people who are depressed, bitter, or angry.

In terms of emotional responses, you’re in a two-person field

Emotional contagion researcher Hatfield suggests:

“In social interaction, focusing only on oneself or only on the other can be equally blinding. The most information can be obtained by alternately monitoring one’s own reactions and observing one’s partners and occasionally moving to a level another analysis to focus on what is going on in the interaction’.

It is easier to see from the outside

Because emotional attachment is so subtle and related to our human fears, it is sometimes more easily recognized by an outsider. Talking to a trusted friend, counselor or therapist can be a way to get the perspective you need.

regain your perspective on the situation and stop the disturbing inner talk about powerlessness or inferiority.

Emotional contagion in short bursts is a valuable and powerful form of interpersonal communication.

A sensitive and aware individual can use it to empathize with another person’s real feelings in a situation and do what needs to be done to reduce the other person’s tension… but when it starts to attack your mental balance and long-term emotional, it’s time to learn more about it!


Reusch, J. & Prestwood, AR, (1949). Anxiety: It’s initiation, communication and interpersonal management, Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, Vol. 62 No. 5, pp. 527-550.

E. Hatfield, JT Cacioppo and RL Rapson, (1992) Primitive emotional attachment, Emotions and Social Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology14, pp. 153-154

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