It’s happened to us all.

We come into the office feeling good. Then we run into a coworker or team member who’s having a bad day. In seconds, she sucks the life out of us with a scowl and a complaint.

We trudge back to our office, look at the clock, and think. “It’s going to be a loooong day …”

What just happened? And what can we do about it?

Science Proves You Were Right

Moods are contagious!

Psychologists call this “emotional contagion.” It’s the same as seeing someone yawning on the train and feeling compelled to do this yourself.

According to research, there are three phases to one person transferring a mood to another:

  1. Nonconscious mimicry: You’ve just seen a woman frown. The mirror neurons in your brain are activated. They tell you to copy the behavior you see in other people so that you’ll fit in (a very old survival in a tribe response). Without being aware of it, you copy her nonverbal cues. This includes not only the frown, but her posture and movements. You’ll also pick up her tone of voice.
  2. Facial feedback: Because you frowned, your brain interprets this as anger. So that’s what it tells you to feel.
  3. Contagion: If you speak with the woman, her unhappy brain and yours start to synch. This accelerates the downward spiral for both of you.

Then both of you go out and “infect” others on your team …

How Do You Break this Cycle?

Fortunately, you have the greatest tool to combat this. It’s awareness.

The next time you find yourself swinging from a mood – when you remembered feeling fine just a few minutes ago – here are some simple things to do.

Take a deep breath. This automatically calms your body and mind. Then ask, “Why am I feeling this way?” If you’re not sure – other than you encountered that owly coworker – then you know it’s time to shrug this off. (If you do have a reason for it, at least now you know what it is and you can choose to do something about it.)

Smile. Of course it sounds silly, but if a frown can make you feel badly, a smile actually can help you feel better. Add a laugh, too. Neither one needs to be genuine. Just the change in your face and voice are enough to send a new (more positive) signal to your brain.

Go light. Eat some chocolate (as if we need an excuse). Or look at flowers—or something with the color green. Or chew gum (the repetitive action of your teeth can calm you). Or jump around. All of these activities lift your spirits.

Go deep. If you have a little time, consider one of these two approaches. One: think of or write a few things you’re grateful for. Two: imagine yourself at your best, with your most admirable qualities. Just coming up with a few ideas for either of these will spark those feel-good endorphins.

Don’t Be at the Mercy of Someone Else’s Mood

It’s true. Lousy things will happen to you, and you’ll experience emotions that don’t feel good. But at least they’ll be your emotions – not something that you picked up like a germ from someone else’s snarky sneeze.

And you also have the power to start a positive emotional contagion at your office. Go find that frowning woman, give her a genuine compliment, and smile. You can make both of your days!