Emotional Residue


by Kay Van Norman

Search the term “emotional residue,” and you’ll find scientific studies about whether strong emotions in a physical space can be detected by others — even after the person feeling the emotion is no longer there. The whole concept of “bad vibes” appears to have some scientific basis. Neurology studies suggest that the nervous system can detect chemical signals lingering in space from strong emotions, such as fear, disgust and happiness.  

My definition centers on how personal interactions can leave positive or negative “residue” that impacts people’s well-being. It stems from a lunch with my 95-year-old grandmother. My aunt, (her daughter), joined us and things took a turn for the worse. 

My aunt’s criticisms, “You spilled on your shirt,” “Turn up your hearing aid,” “You remembered that wrong,” had a profound effect. Despite my protests, I watched Grandma absorb this negative energy and become more unsure of herself. By the end of lunch, she struggled to walk the three blocks home that had been an easy stroll just an hour before. 

I’ve observed similar scenes with others during my 30-year career in healthy aging. The emotional residue you project and absorb can directly impact well-being.   

You’ve likely experienced emotional residue when you’ve seen someone coming down the sidewalk and thought, “Oh, good!” or if you made an abrupt turn to avoid an interaction. You understand it when you are around someone that always leaves you feeling good or feeling awkward. 

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  

I agree. Recognizing negative emotional residue can help you consciously refuse to give consent.  

Interactions without negative intent, but laced with negative stereotypes of aging, pose a different challenge. An example: I once observed 80-year-old Phyllis deflect unintended negative emotional residue while seated in the entrance to a senior living community. Several people greeted her with, “How are you today?” in a patronizing tone of voice. One woman added, “Did you have the nice apple pie today?” Phyllis smiled and said, “No, I was in a meeting with the rest of the board members discussing an expansion plan for the community; but I bet if you ask in the kitchen, they’ll make sure you get a piece!”  

Emotional Residue impacts perceptions, and research demonstrates how perceptions can impact health. One of the earliest studies, dubbed “Counterclockwise,” was conducted in 1979 by Dr. Ellen Langer of Yale University. She placed two groups of men from nursing homes into carefully constructed environments for two weeks. The control group spent time reminiscing about what their lives were like 20 years earlier. The test group lived as if it were 20 years ago. Their environment was like stepping back in time, including the TV shows, clothes they wore and even topics of discussion. The research assistants treated these men like they would someone who was 20 years younger. 

The men in the test group demonstrated improved strength, mobility, cognition and vision. Langer concluded that by expecting independence, and not engaging with them as “old people,” the men felt differently, which in-turn had an impact on them biologically. 

Hundreds of studies followed with similar results. Current studies are exploring if positive perceptions can be harnessed to influence diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. 

Consider your personal interactions. If they’re overwhelmingly positive, then you’re on the right track! If you’re experiencing a large share of negative interactions, then it’s time to consider what “vibe” you bring to relationships — at home, at work or in your community. Consider how that vibe impacts your experience and the experience of others.  

If you’re having a bad day, do you tend to pass it on, leaving a negative emotional residue in your wake? Or do you make a conscious choice to treat others kindly regardless of what frustrations you’re feeling? 

Examining the role emotional residue plays in your life can reveal if it supports or diminishes your ability to cultivate social experiences that contribute to lifelong vitality.    

For further information, explore studies by Drs. Ellen Langer, Becca Levy, Victor Strecher and Elizabeth Blackburn. For resources and strategies, visit my website (www.kayvannorman.com). 

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