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State of Mind

What are toxic emotions and how can you stop them?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The term ‘toxic emotions’ is regularly used, but what are they exactly?

They are feelings of anger, guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, self-loathing, regret, bitterness, and resentment – feelings that bring no positive benefit to our lives or our mental wellbeing. These are all toxic emotions that are harmful not just to us but to everyone around us, at home and at work. Toxic emotions, when left unchecked, can impact our mental and physical health. Fortunately there are many ways you can learn to deal with toxic emotions and align your thoughts with positive patterns.

Protecting yourself and your loved ones from the consequences of too much negativity starts with an understanding of how your emotions influence the world and how the world influences your emotions. It’s a two-way path—or better yet, a web of connections. No wonder it has been said that it’s easier to catch an emotion than it is to catch a cold.

Why is it so easy to find yourself feeling toxic emotions?

Research on a range of habits and feelings, both good and bad, reveals that they can be contagious. For example, a study of interpersonal chemistry through negativity found that sharing negative ideas about a third party is particularly effective in promoting closeness between people. In other words it’s bonding over a mutual dislike of someone else.1 While this may create an initial bond, it is hardly a healthy basis for a friendship. This is likely a holdover from primitive times when there was survival benefit in small groups of humans bonding together and seeing other groups as “the enemy.”

Today such bonding patterns have become dysfunctional and may have an “anti-survival” effect. In other words, what used to help us survive is now a force that attracts negative people and bad influences into our lives. This is compounded by unrelated findings that show your chances of being unhappy are doubled after you come into contact with just one negative experience.2

How to deal with toxic emotions?

Luckily happiness and acts of kindness are contagious too. Just like learning how to deal with toxic emotions, you can also learn how to feel more positive ones. The effects of performing one good deed can spread outward through complex social connections affecting people you may never meet.3 Perhaps better still, for every “happy” friend you have, your chances of being happy yourself increases by almost 10 percent.4 We tend to attract into our lives the thoughts and emotions we focus on. On top of that, a primitive instinct to mimic our companions’ expressions, body language and speech makes us even more susceptible to “catching” emotions from the people we interact with the most.5

It’s clear that our emotions affect the people around us and that the people around us affect our emotions.6 Naturally, it follows that if you surround yourself with people who dwell on negative experiences and toxic emotions, you will begin to align yourself with the same thoughts and experiences.

Conversely if you spend your time with people who focus on joy, gratitude, happiness and other positive emotions, you will find your own thoughts and emotions to be aligned with positive things, people, experiences, ideas and concepts.

This is easiest to do at home, where we have the most control over our lives. You choose who to let walk in your door, what music is played on the stereo and what channel the television is on. It might seem trivial at first but these environmental factors can have a major impact on your emotional state.

After a stressful day, coming home to your personal sanctuary and spending time with positive-minded friends, listening to uplifting music, watching a light-hearted show, reading a motivational book or doing any other activity that helps you feel less stress will help you realign your thoughts with positive frequencies and will reduce the risk of toxic emotions taking hold.

How to deal with toxic emotions at work

At work it can take a little more practice to avoid catching toxic emotions. This is because often we can’t choose the people we have to spend time with. Whether it’s a boss who shouts at subordinates or a co-worker who gossips about people in the office, sometimes there is no avoiding negativity in the workplace.

When toxic emotions abound, the best way to avoid becoming infected is to bolster your positive thoughts by seeking out other people in the office who want to keep a positive outlook and find joy at the office. When you invest time and energy in these relationships, your own good deeds and positivity will ripple through the office and counteract negativity. The effect can snowball as more and more co-workers feel the difference made by not dwelling on toxic feelings which can lead to not just less stress and better feelings but also improved cooperation, decreased conflict and increased work performance.7

Whether you’re at work, at home, out with friends or meeting new people at a dinner party, always remember that you don’t need to react to every negative influence you come across.

Negatively focused people often seek out others to join them. When you consider what toxic emotions are, you will most likely be able to recall a conversation in which someone tried to get you to complain about another person or situation. The next time this happens to you, remember that you don’t have to react. You don’t have to agree and let negative emotions take hold. You also don’t have to confront the person which can spark an argument.

What if you can’t avoid a toxic person or environment?

If you have no choice but to be around people displaying toxic emotions, your most viable option is to simply not let the negative comments influence you. Take a moment to examine your own inner thoughts and make sure that you are staying true to your desire to focus on positive thoughts and experiences.

When possible, remove yourself from the situation quickly but politely. At work, this can be as easy as saying you have a deadline to meet. At a dinner party, you can excuse yourself to refresh a drink.

Much like germs, emotions are contagious. And if we don’t take some precautions, we can catch toxic emotions without realising it. The absolute best way to bolster your immunity to toxic emotions is to surround yourself with other people who intentionally align their thoughts with positive frequencies.

  1. Bosson, Jennifer K., Amber B. Johnson, Kate Niederhoffer, and William B. Swann. “Interpersonal Chemistry through Negativity: Bonding by Sharing Negative Attitudes about Others.” Personal Relationships 13, no. 2 (2006): 135–50. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00109.x []
  2. Hill, Alison L. et al. “Emotions as Infectious Diseases in a Large Social Network: The SISa Model.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277.1701 (2010): 3827–3835. PMC. Web. 3 May 2017 []
  3. James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. “Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks.” PNAS 2010 107 (12) 5334-5338; published ahead of print March 8, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0913149107 []
  4. Christakis, Nicholas A, and James Fowler. “SOCIAL NETWORKS AND HAPPINESS.” SOCIAL NETWORKS AND HAPPINESS | Edge.org, n.d. https://www.edge.org/conversation/social-networks-and-happiness []
  5.  Colino, Stacey. “Are You Catching Other People’s Emotions?” U.S. News & World Report, n.d. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2016-01-20/are-you-catching-other-peoples-emotions []
  6. Larson, Reed W., and David M. Almeida. “Emotional Transmission in the Daily Lives of Families: A New Paradigm for Studying Family Process.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61, no. 1 (1999): 5. https://doi.org/10.2307/353879 []
  7. Barsade, Sigal G. “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior.” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2002): 644. https://doi.org/10.2307/3094912 []