Focusing on ‘stressful’ or ‘negative’ events increases the level of inflammation in the body, new research has found. This research shows that psychological stress is interpreted by the body in a similar way to the way that physical trauma, injury, or infection is.
The study specifically found that when participants were told to focus on a stressful event, that their levels of C-reactive protein rose. C-reactive protein is a marker of tissue inflammation. This research is the first to directly measure this effect as it occurs in the body.
“Much of the past work has looked at this in non-experimental designs. Researchers have asked people to report their tendency to ruminate, and then looked to see if it connected to physiological issues. It’s been correlational for the most part,” said Peggy Zoccola, lead author of the study, and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University.
The research was done by recruiting “34 healthy young women to participate in the project. Each woman was asked to give a speech about her candidacy for a job to two interviewers in white laboratory coats, who listened with stone-faced expressions.”
“Half of the group was asked to contemplate their performance in the public speaking task, while the other half was asked to think about neutral images and activities, such as sailing ships or grocery store trips.”
“The researchers drew blood samples that showed that the levels of C-reactive protein were significantly higher in the subjects who were asked to dwell on the speech.”
“For these participants, the levels of the inflammatory marker continued to rise for at least one hour after the speech. During the same time period, the marker returned to starting levels in the subjects who had been asked to focus on other thoughts.”
“The C-reactive protein is primarily produced by the liver as part of the immune system’s initial inflammatory response. It rises in response to traumas, injuries or infections in the body,” Zoccola explained.
“C-reative protein is widely used as a clinical marker to determine if a patient has an infection, but also if he or she may be at risk for disease later in life.”
“More and more, chronic inflammation is being associated with various disorders and conditions,” Zoccola said. “The immune system plays an important role in various cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, as well as cancer, dementia and autoimmune diseases.”
There is obviously a great deal of plasticity in what may or may not be considered stressful by different individuals. In the case of this study, the “stress” was being provided by putting someone in a situation where they wanted a certain outcome, but had little control over it, as it was dependent on the judgement of another person/people (the ‘job’ interviewers in this case). Much of the ‘stress’ that many modern people report to experience in their lives seems to be of this type, very much dependent upon someone else, who you may not respect, being your ‘boss’.
On a related note, recent research from the University of Helsinki found that regular exercise, especially intense exercise, greatly reduces the release of stress hormones in children when they are exposed to everyday ‘stressors’.
The researchers concluded: “The findings suggest physical activity plays a role in mental health by buffering children from the effects of daily stressors, such as public speaking,” said the study’s lead author, Silja Martikainen, MA, of the University of Helsinki, Finland.
Image Credit: Inflammation