This article was originally written in the early stages of COVID-19. I was working to stay grounded for the sake of those around me. Whether it’s an epidemic or the fears of co-workers, the work of maintaining emotional equilibrium remains the same. We don’t need to minimize the fears and reactions of those around us, but we can learn how to be supportive without jumping into the vortex ourselves.

Anxiety Can Be Contagious

I had one goal this week—to buffer myself against the fear mongering around me and maintain focus for the clients who needed to make tough business decisions related to COVID-19. I needed data, not anxiety. The last thing they needed was for me to speak from a place of reactivity or group consensus. You see, the downside of extreme empathy, is that I can “catch” other people’s emotions quite easily. For some of us, anxiety is contagious.

It was 1999, and I was in the beginning of my Master’s program. My mentor had warned me that advanced degree programs contain lots of neurotic people, and that the environment would worsen as I scaled the academic ladder. Sure enough, in my first assessment class, I learned lessons from my anxious classmates that have guided me ever since.

I learned that people can be highly anxious with no supporting facts. They can spread that anxiety to other people through emotions, suggestions, and outright fear-mongering. Worse, I learned that if I were around that anxiety, I became anxious even if I didn’t buy the reason for the anxiety. As a baby graduate student, I even became anxious if everyone else was anxious, and I was not. Why were they freaking out? Did they see something that I had missed?

Over time, I learned to cut myself off from conversations and environments that were full of uninformed conversations. If I heard a concern, I figured out who was most likely to give me factual information and went straight to the source. I even learned to let everyone go through the emotional gymnastics ahead of me. By the time it was my turn to act, the original “data” had drastically changed. I could latch my emotions onto the real picture instead of a mirage created from the amalgamated emotion of the masses.

 

Social Media Amplifies Cultural Emotion

Today, as you know, anxiety is transmitted easily through social media. The furor makes it difficult to separate truth from suggestion. Even if one is not naturally anxious, it is easy to feel it in the air, especially if you are prone to noticing the emotions and lifestyle nuances of people around you.

In a weird twist of fate, people who are already anxious seem drawn toward the poison—consuming terrifying tweets, posts, and news reports for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We know that in times of confusion, people tend to follow group norms, or possibly rebel against them, neither strategy of which lends itself to clear, objective decision-making.

 

Tactics to Protect You From Other People's Anxiety

I wish I could have given clear answer to my leaders and business owners this week. In lieu of not being able to do that, I gave the advice that I am passing on to you.1. Try not to react to the emotion. Ask questions to sort through various ramifications and scenarios. Do your best to make decisions with the actual information you have.2. Stay away from social media, unless you really need the information for your business.3. Surround yourself with people who are level-headed and can help you access the facts that actually matter.4. Quarantine yourself from anxious people. Change the conversation or simply avoid them. If you are living with someone who is watching the news 24/7, you may need to buy earplugs.5. Remember to look at what is in your control, and focus on that.6. If you are making up worst-case scenarios in your head, go there and figure out how you will survive them. Otherwise, you allow the fears to play in the background of your mind. You may want to figure out how the worst case scenarios will impact you 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years from now. Will you be okay? Will the company be okay? Even if the answer is “no” or “unknown,” figure out how you would move forward. Then return to the present and to the things that matter right now.7. Eat, breathe, and surround yourself with hope. Technically speaking, both hope and fear are matters of perception, so choose the one that protects you from contamination.