Women's health * Men's health * Mental wellbeing

How stress can make you sick

How stress can make you sick Those sensitive to social rejection are more susceptible to illness

Does speaking in front of a crowd make you nervous? Well, that may be the least of your worries, as the social stress involved may most literally be making you sick.

Research conducted at the University of California Los Angeles found that individuals who exhibit greater neural sensitivity to social rejection also exhibit greater increases in inflammatory activity to social stress.

Chronic inflammation can increase the risk of a variety of disorders, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and depression.

"It turns out, there are important differences in how people interpret and respond to social situations," lead researcher George Slavich said.

"For example, some people see giving a speech in front of an audience as a welcome challenge; others see it as threatening and distressing. In this study, we sought to examine the neural bases for these differences in response and to understand how these differences relate to biological processes that can affect human health and well-being."

The study tested 124 volunteers, subjecting them to awkward social situations. One involved preparing and delivering a speech and performing difficult mental arithmetic, both in front of a hostile panel of raters. Mouth swabs were taken before and after the public-speaking to test for changes in two key biomarkers of inflammatory activity.

In another session, the participants received an MRI brain scan while playing a video game against what were perceived to be human opponents. Midway through the game, the subject was excluded from the game, giving the impression they had been socially rejected.

The results showed that individuals who exhibited most neural activity during social rejection also exhibited greater increases in inflammatory activity when exposed to acute social stress in the lab.

"This is further evidence of how closely our mind and body are connected," Dr Slavich said.

"We have known for a long time that social stress can 'get under the skin' to increase risk for disease, but it's been unclear exactly how these effects occur. To our knowledge, this study is the first to identify the neurocognitive pathways that might be involved in inflammatory responses to acute social stress," he added.

Although increases in inflammatory activity are part of our immune system's natural response to potentially harmful situations, "frequent or chronic activation of the system may increase risk for a variety of disorders," Dr Slavich said.

The key question raised by the research is why neural sensitivity to social rejection would cause an increase in inflammation. The authors suggest that inflammation - which accelerates wound healing - may be triggered in anticipation of a physical injury.

However, while short-term inflammation is useful in battling an injury, chronic inflammation arising from the perception of social rejection is not.

"Although the issue is complex, one solution is to not treat negative thoughts as facts," Dr Slavich said.

"If you think you're being socially rejected, ask yourself, what's the evidence? If there is no evidence, then revise your belief. If you were right, then make sure you're not catastrophizing or making the worst out of the situation."

The study appears in the current online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This article was published on Tue 10 August 2010

Image © Charly - Fotolia.com

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