Inflammatory stuff

You know what it’s like – some days everything just seems to go awry. The boiler starts leaking, your child gets sick and has to be picked up from school, and when you step out to get into the car you realise you’ve had a flat tyre.

These are the sorts of daily stressors that can seriously impede our serenity, and how we react to them over time may significantly impact on our long-term physical health, a recent study finds.

The investigators, reporting their results in Health Psychology, took a group of 872 adults from the US National Study of Daily Experiences and asked them to report daily stressors and emotional ‘affect’ over the course of eight consecutive days. Blood samples were taken on those days and assayed for inflammatory markers interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP).

The results showed that people who experienced greater suppression of positive affect on stressful days had elevated inflammatory biomarkers, especially IL-6. Heightened negative affect and reactivity was also associated with higher CRP, among women in particular.

According to the authors, this is the first study to link biomarkers of inflammation with emotional reactivity to stressors of everyday life. It highlights the important, yet sometimes overlooked, contribution of a positive mindset to keeping biological stress reactions under control.

That’s all well and good but, as anyone who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or anyone who treats it will tell you, keeping emotions right-sized can be difficult when the triggering stressor has the ‘flavour’ of a stressor from the past, especially one from a troubled childhood. Indeed the size of the reaction is often a tell-tale sign that the real-time stressor is not being treated simply for what it is, but rather, is being ‘projected onto’, possibly as a means of addressing the original trauma.

The key with stressful events in daily life, then, is to use them to effect greater self-knowledge and greater awareness of the past – and to harness this over time to intervene on reflexive over-reactions. In this way, daily stressors can even become a sort of friend; a means of integrating past traumas and cultivating the ability to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

It seems highly likely that intense reactions to everyday stressors over time might conceivably affect our biochemistry and it’s not too great a leap to imagine the harmful long-term health effects.

But the good news is that when the light is shone on such reactions and they can be chipped away at over time, the emotional fruits can be transformational.

Written by Jacqui Hogan