Ideas from the book Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times (2020), by Lise Van Susteren and Stacey Colino.
These days it’s common to feel anxious, outraged, stressed out, fearful about the future, hyper-reactive, agitated, or otherwise on edge. It’s a state that Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, DC., has dubbed “emotional inflammation.” She says it is a phenomenon that’s similar to post-traumatic stress stemming from simply living in today’s tumultuous world.
At the most fundamental level, inflammation is a defense mechanism that occurs when the body recognizes problems and attempts to heal them. Although we tend to think inflammation has a physical cause, it can also have an emotional cause.
Emotional manifestations can make us feel hot, irritated, uncomfortable, and can even be painful. It can make moving through everyday life more difficult and leave us feeling tired or depleted.
A substantial body of scientific evidence now links negative emotions to the kind of chronic, invisible, systemic (or internal) inflammation that’s associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
A recent study revealed that adults who experienced considerable anger over the course of a week had higher blood levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker of chronic low-grade inflammation. Another study found a strong association between depression and higher IL-6 levels.
A 2018 study found that several anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, are associated with increased levels of C-reactive protein, another biomarker of chronic inflammation.
The fact that our emotions are highly inflamed these days is indisputable – and this reality is harmful for our bodies and minds.
As uncomfortable as emotional inflammation can feel, it’s a natural or appropriate response to the conditions we’ve been living with in recently. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be at its mercy. Being in a constant state of agitation can have insidious ripple effects on your physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing. The key is to help yourself recover from emotional inflammation, just as you would if you suffered physical inflammation after spraining your ankle or bruising your knee.
Strategies for Taking Care of Yourself
- Care for your body
- Get enough good-quality sleep
- Steady your body’s circadian rhythms by dimming artificial lights and setting curfews on digital devices
- Eat healthily
- Exercise regularly
- Regularly decompress from stress (with meditation or even deep breathing exercises)
- Recognize your feelings – At various times during the day, it helps to pause and ask yourself: how am I feeling? What words describe my current mood or state of mind? What have I dreamt about that has stuck with me? What am I thinking about or worrying about excessively? If you have trouble identifying these feelings in your mind, it can help to engage in expressive writing with pen and paper or on your computer.
- Reality-check your thoughts – To prevent your thoughts from spiraling out of control into worst-case scenarios or what-if propositions, use critical thinking skills to evaluate them. Ask yourself: what evidence suggests this thought is true? Are there other ways I could look at the situation? This is what’s called “cognitive reframing,” which helps change the way you think, feel, and behave If you find this difficult to do, you can talk with a friend who has skills at being reasonable and analytical.
- Limit media exposure – When we’re subjected to a continuous influx of disturbing or alarming news, that information overload can easily upset our emotional equilibrium. A survey by the American Psychological Association involving adults in the US showed that fifty-six per cent of people surveyed reported that following the news closely caused them stress. A group of psychologists warned that repeated media exposure to news could present a risk of psychological distress, including increased anxiety and heightened stress responses that could lead to symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress.
- Connect with nature and awe – The scientific literature is filled with studies illustrating how experiencing or viewing scenes from nature relieves stress and physical pain, enhances attention and cognition, and provides other mind-body benefits. So, take a walk in a park, the woods, a garden, or near a body of water. Soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of plants and trees, wildlife and other natural elements. Tune into the power of awe by gazing at the stars and planets at night, and appreciate the sense of wonder at being a part of something larger than yourself.
- Become an agent of change – Taking any action to help make the world a more humane and equitable place can have a profound effect on your sense of empowerment and wellbeing. Make an effort to shift from inaction to action, from bystander to upstander (by recognizing that something is wrong and speaking up, or standing up to work to make it right). You can do this in many different ways, both large and small – by financially supporting or volunteering for a cause you believe in, writing letters to elected officials about an important issue, working on a get-out-the-vote campaign, doing things to reduce your carbon footprint, and so much more.
Instead of simply feeling vulnerable and unsteady, you can redirect the energy behind your outrage, fear, or despair. You can take action that will change the conditions that fuel your worries. Seizing that opportunity is the hidden gift in emotional inflammation. It’s yours for the taking.
Thought-Starters for Sharing
- What signs have you noticed that you have enough agitation to make you uncomfortable?
- How much is related in some way to advancing age?
- Where in your body can you notice tension?
- What habits have you developed that benefit your body?
- What are some of the feelings you have in a typical day? Bad feelings? Good feelings?
- When have you spent time focusing/worrying about matters that you don’t know much about?
- Whose conversations give you different perspectives?
- How much time do you spend each day on watching/listening to news programs?
- What activities in nature affect you positively? How often do you do them?
- What actions make you feel useful?
- What kind of power do you have?