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You try not to sneeze so why spread the gloom?

The spread of swine flu has engendered a code of social etiquette. Hand-sanitisers and tissues have become handbag essentials while 'hands off' has become the new social protocol. These days, a single, solitary sneeze is enough to stir up a mix of fear and loathing, dread and panic.

It's a shame we can't be as upfront with negative people, who are as, if not more, threatening to health. Moans and nags: we all know one. They are the people who routinely grumble, whine and groan. They seem incapable of happiness or positivity; rather, they take an almost perverse pleasure in wallowing in their woes. They are in an emotional black hole and, worse, they want you to spiral down with them.

She's the friend whose conversations begin with an exasperated breath and the words, "I'm not moaning/bitching/ giving out, but . . ."; the impossible-to-please client whose blank stare brings you to the depths of misery and the taxi driver who launches into a diatribe on everything from the state of the Government to his last fare (while you pay €20 for the privilege).

You wouldn't sneeze on someone, so why is it considered acceptable to burden people with your woes? Negativity is highly infectious. It is a pernicious disease, often more destructive to the infected than the host. And there's no Tamiflu for this dose.

Psychologists call them 'energy vampires' and 'psychic parasites', because they deplete positive energy by draining every drop of life blood from your body. Writer Eckhart Tolle refers to the syndrome itself as the 'pain body', a term he uses to describe the accumulation of emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.

I like to call them 'soul snatchers' because when I am in contact with them I feel like I've been emotionally winded and mentally exhausted. The phenomenon has been observed by scientists, who refer to it as emotional contagion. In a study of 170 pairs of roommates, it was discovered that severely depressed subjects were more likely to have a roommate whose mood declined over a six-week period. They cheered up noticeably when they spent time away from their depressed roommates.

We are conditioned to believe that we need to listen to anyone who is unhappy, but often these people don't want advice or help. They don't want to be soothed or saved. Misery, they say, loves company.

Negativity is a harmful force that often goes undiscussed because of its intangibility. Actually, it's as noxious and infectious as a physical illness. Even the relentlessly upbeat will experience a dip in mood when in the company of a negative person, unless coping skills are deployed. Sadly, the best skill to adopt is disassociation.