As I connect with friends, most often now by text, email or phone, when certain issues come up, I try to change the subject. If that fails, I discover that my cat urgently needs to be fed.
I have closed the door on commiserating at length about the latest actions or tweets of prominent politicians, of either stripe. I can feel a visceral response to the anger or distress of a friend. My muscles tighten, my breathing becomes shallow. I’ve decided to withdraw from this sort of political conversation. Too much talk to no good end.
Scientific studies validate my stance.
Actually, on the very day I was completing the final edit of an essay about the benefits of self-disclosure, with the underlying message that talking with trusted friends about one’s worries and feelings is a positive thing, I came upon research on the negative aspect of excessive talk. At first, this was a counter-intuitive theory that startled me. But I read on.
Psychologists have termed the daily, lengthy problem-dwelling talk between adolescents, “co-rumination”. They talk, they text, obsessively discussing the same issue. The conclusion is that this often leads to increased anxiety and depression, among girls far more than among boys who, no surprise here, tend to talk less.
Amanda J. Rose is a researcher in the field of adolescent psychology, and a professor at the University of Missouri. In a study published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, she stated: “When girls are talking about their problems, it probably feels good to get that level of support and validation, but they are not putting two and two together. Actually, this excessive talking can make them feel worse.” Not putting two and two together. Not working on solutions. Just commiserating with each other.
This is not just problematic for adolescents. For some time now, I’ve known of studies which confirm that people who live with others suffering from depression tend to become depressed themselves. Is this, in essence, what is happening? Following the latest public pronouncements and tweets has become a national wringing of hands, (albeit not universal misery for there is joy in the land as well.) Am I becoming “infected” with the misery of others?
Before I could put two and two together, I sought to better understand why talking with good friends with whom I share most values is dragging me down.
So, I’ve taken a deep dive into the scientific research* and learned about the mental hazard psychologists call “emotional contagion” or “contagious anxiety” in which one person’s negative thoughts or worry can affect another’s mood. Emotions are contagious. We actually “catch” one another’s emotions and when intense negative emotions are expressed emphatically, they are even more contagious. As I struggle to swim out of this miasma, to put two and two together, I will keep my focus on ways I can have some impact on the election outcome.
But here is an odd twist to my personal story, and I wonder if it is true for others. Although I ration the amount of time I spend each day checking in with my most trusted news sources, I am keeping up. Reading about what is going on in Washington, the pandemic, protests, and other national hot spots, and even checking in on my most trusted editorial voices, some who present an alarming picture of our future, I remain calm. Concerned, of course, and stories of great loss or suffering can bring me to tears, but my breathing is not altered, the emotional contagion is kept more or less at bay. In fact, checking in on my trusted news sources delivers a certain relaxed resolve.
It seems that my empathic response to the anxious alert in the words and facial expression of my friends when they express fear or anger or predictions of doom, heightens my anxiety, when similar views, delivered by a stranger, spur me on to put two and two together, to make a rational plan.
So, in today’s political arena, for now I am drawing away, trying to protect myself from emotional contagion, and doing so well aware that I am giving up on empathy, having a shared emotional experience, not only the characteristic I most admire in others, but which from an evolutionary perspective is probably the trait that saved the day for early man.
Perhaps after November, I will return.