by Stacey Colino
Waves in Moonlight (1904-05)
Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
These days, it's common to feel anxious or outraged, unusually
stressed out or fearful about the future, hyperreactive, agitated or
otherwise on edge.
It's a state that we have dubbed 'emotional
inflammation', a phenomenon that's similar to post-traumatic stress
stemming from simply living in today's tumultuous world.
It's not a
term you'll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (DSM-5), the standard guide for the classification of
mental health disorders.
But the condition, which afflicted millions
living in our chaotic, confusing, often contentious world before the
COVID-19, now rages off the charts.
There's plenty of support for the concept of emotional inflammation
because, as with the physical inflammation that occurs in response
to, say, an injury, emotional manifestations can also 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...
Plus, 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 and stroke,
diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
study, for instance, 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...
found a strong association between depression and higher IL-6
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.
You get the picture...
The fact that our
emotions are highly inflamed these days is indisputable - and this
reality is harmful for our bodies and minds.
A new study from
researchers at San Diego State University and Florida State
revealed that in April 2020 adults in the United States were
eight times more likely to meet the criteria for serious mental
distress than adults surveyed in 2018.
Alcohol consumption has
increased considerably, according to
surveys, and experts are
concerned about increasing rates of alcohol consumption
throughout the world since 1990.
Think back to just
a year or two ago, and you might recall reading about new forms of
distress and depletion:
so on, that our culture has been experiencing at astonishing rates.
People have been hurting emotionally and there's little mystery as
we are shaken by news about gun violence and hate crimes,
the ongoing stream of sexual abuse and misconduct scandals, racial
injustices, human rights violations, disasters in the natural world,
the climate crisis, as well as political discord and dysfunction in
the US and around the world...
is just the new kid on the
Then, these kinds
of society-level challenges are superimposed upon our own day-to-day
challenges - coping with demanding jobs for which we might not be
sufficiently compensated, the high cost of modern life, raising kids
in a world with increasingly difficult challenges and dangerous
temptations, and the like...
When we're fortunate enough to begin
recovering from one trigger or trauma, another often comes along and
becomes the emotional equivalent of reopening the wound and ramping
up inflammation anew.
Indeed, there can
be a priming effect: when you're in the throes of intense stress or
emotional inflammation, you can become more sensitive, both
physiologically and psychologically, to the next stressor you
It's an effect that's a bit like throwing gas on a
simmering flame - the fire gets bigger, hotter, angrier.
showed that after reading negative news reports, women are more
likely to remember the information for longer than men, and
experience more enduring physiological responses - namely, a greater
rise in cortisol in response to a stressful activity that occurs the
hear' about the concept
of emotional inflammation and its symptoms, they often have an 'aha'
moment of recognition, one that makes them feel understood and less
Knowing there's a name for how and why you've been feeling so
irritable, hot and testy, distressed or anguished helps these
emotions feel a bit less unsettling or alienating.
Some people have
asked whether there's anyone who isn't experiencing
emotional inflammation, given the current state of the world. Maybe
if you lived in an isolated cabin in the woods and avoided all media
exposure, you would be protected from emotional inflammation.
that's not an experience most of us have or want...
As uncomfortable as
emotional inflammation can feel, it's a natural or appropriate
response to the conditions we've been living with in recent years;
however, that doesn't mean you have to be at its mercy. Nor do you
want to be, because it can have insidious ripple effects on your
physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing, in just about every
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.
The good news is,
with conscious effort, emotional inflammation can be managed and
alleviated, from the inside out and the outside in.
As a starting
point, it's essential to prioritize taking care of your body's needs by,
getting enough good-quality sleep
steadying your body's
circadian rhythms (by dimming artificial lights and setting curfews
on digital devices)
taking care of your
gut microbiome (with foods
containing probiotics and prebiotics)
taking time to regularly decompress from stress (with meditation or
even deep breathing exercises)
These steps will help reduce the
heat and swelling from emotional inflammation, allowing you to
restore a foundation of calm and healing.
Here are five more
strategies to help you reclaim your equanimity:
Recognize your feelings
times during the day, it helps to pause and ask yourself:
What words describe my current mood or state of mind?
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
James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the
University of Texas at Austin, has repeatedly shown in his
research that writing about your feelings can help you become
better at recognizing and processing them.
study, he and his colleagues showed that when
depression-vulnerable young adults made a habit of engaging in
expressive writing for three consecutive days, their depressive
symptoms declined significantly - as did their tendency to brood
- over the course of six months.
If you need some prompts to get
going, ask yourself:
What am I thinking about or worrying about
What have I dreamt about that has stuck with me?
Reality-check your thoughts
style can either ratchet up your emotional inflammation or help
dial it down.
Think of this as akin to choosing between applying
heat or ice to a sprained ankle:
heat would increase blood flow
to the area and exacerbate the swelling (not what you want),
whereas cold and compression would be more therapeutic.
prevent your thoughts from spiraling out of control into
worst-case scenarios or what-if propositions, use critical
thinking skills to evaluate them.
suggests this thought is true?
Are there other ways I could look
at the situation?
Simply put, the way you appraise your thoughts
and feelings can influence how they affect you.
For example, a
found that when people's mindsets were manipulated by film
clips that featured a 'stress is enhancing' message before they
participated in a mock job interview, the participants
experienced sharper increases in positive mood, greater
cognitive flexibility and greater attention towards positive
stimuli than those who were manipulated with a 'stress is
debilitating' message before the mock interview.
This is just
one example of what's called 'cognitive reframing', a
cognitive behavioral therapy, which
helps people change the way they think and behave to alter
how they feel.
the right balance
between turning inward
your media exposure
subjected to a continuous influx of disturbing or alarming news,
that information overload can easily upset our emotional
equilibrium, just as immersing a wound in hot or dirty water can
increase physical inflammation and impede healing.
survey by the American Psychological Association involving
3,440 adults in the US found that 56 per cent of people reported
that following the news closely caused them stress.
recently, a group of psychologists
warned that repeated media exposure to news about a
community crisis 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
threshold of information overload varies from one person to
another, so it's important to identify your personal tipping
point and prevent yourself from reaching it.
You can moderate
the amount of upsetting or alarming information that comes your
way by putting yourself on what we call a 'media diet':
resolving to read the news only in the morning, or setting
limits on how frequently you check newsfeeds, or giving yourself
entirely news-free days.
with nature - and awe
literature is filled with studies illustrating how experiencing
or even 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, and
soak in the sights, sounds and smells of plants and trees,
wildlife and other natural elements.
Focus on the repeating
patterns - called
fractals - that are inherent in the veins of a
leaf or crystals in an icicle; viewing these patterns
sends calming messages to the brain that heighten our sense
of safety and equilibrium.
Tune into the power of awe by
the stars and planets at night, and appreciate the
sense of wonder at being a part of something larger than
an agent of change
action to help make the world a more humane and equitable place
can have a profound effect on your sense of empowerment and
So 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...
Every positive action you
take contributes to moving the needle of progress in the right
direction and inspires other people to do their part.
By taking these
steps, you can come to your own emotional rescue at any time,
without waiting for the world to change.
Ultimately, the key
to relieving emotional inflammation is to find the right balance
between turning inward and reaching outward - by tending to your
upsetting emotions and frazzled state of mind, and engaging in
meaningful activities that bring you a sense of purpose, resilience
and connection with others.
Instead of simply feeling vulnerable and
unsteady, you can redirect the energy behind your outrage, fear or
despair into working to change the upstream conditions that fuel
your worries, while finding like-minded people to be at your side.
opportunity is the hidden gift in emotional inflammation.
for the taking...