Forget sticks and stones; we break for less...

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - February 2, 2012 - 12:00am

Most of us generally consider our emotional lives separate from our physical lives. For instance, we endure tumultuous romantic, friendly or professional relationships until perhaps those conflicts involve sticks and stones that could literally break you. It is as if our emotional lives were not anchored in our bodies. But scientists have, for a while now, already dispelled this split view of ourselves.

Emotional stresses DO take a toll on our physical bodies and one indication of this is chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to a couple of diseases like hypertension, heart diseases, diabetes, and even some cancers. Studies have shown that people who are in unstable relationships filled with mistrust and conflict have higher levels of chronic inflammation. In fact, hostile married couples as well as married women with rheumatoid arthritis who are always criticized by their spouses have also been found to have an increased level of chronic inflammation. Now, a study came out that negative social interactions and certain competitive experiences have a hand in making us sick. I think this is part of the science behind people being a “real pain.”

The study is found in the early online edition (March 2012) of the Proceedings of the National Academy (USA) and is entitled “Negative and competitive social interactions are related to heightened proinflammatory cytokine activity” by researchers from University of California, Los Angeles namely Jessica J. Chiang, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Teresa E. Seeman, and Shelley E. Taylor. It involved 122 subjects, a mix of both men and women who were asked to keep a diary of their positive, negative and competitive social experiences for eight days. Before and after their reported stresses, they were asked to go to the lab so that the researchers could get oral samples of fluids that indicate inflammation (specifically, proinflammatory cytokine levels). The subjects described “positive” social interactions as time spent with or received support from friends and family. “Negative” experiences were described as interactions that involved conflict with family or friends. “Competitive” involved settings both at work and at play.

The results were clear that inflammation is linked to negative social interactions and in certain kinds of competitive experiences – that at work and when competing for your partner’s attention or even for just the eye of a potential partner. There was NO significant chronic inflammation reported for stress that involved competitive leisure activity like sports which surprised me observing how people get so worked up over sports.

The scientists are careful to say that they do not know yet exactly HOW stresses like these push our bodies into this state of inner swelling. Negative social experiences are common fare in our lives. If there is something we cannot control, it is other people. What I would like to know next is how an awareness of what these experiences can do to my body, change how my body reacts to people who are painful to deal with. We refer to people who can manage their emotions as being cool. It would be cooler if we could see studies that could test whether being able to manage one’s emotions, thru meditation or some level of awareness, can really prevent this kind of inflammation. But I think this study is proof that we are on our way to clearly establishing that our emotional lives cannot be contained in diaries separate from our bodies. They are one and it seems that when you are having a bad day with your spouse or friends, some kind of swelling, a swelling that in the long-term, is linked to many serious diseases, does happen. Now we know that sticks and stones are not the only ones that could “break our bones.”

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

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