Researchers studying conflict and stress have found that stress stimulates part of the immune system that causes inflammation in the body. Inflammation has been linked to a long list of health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and autoimmune disorders.
The focus of the study was to determine whether the stress of personal conflicts and competitive sports would trigger the release of molecules known as cytokines, which are linked to inflammation.
Study participants, 122 young adults (53 men and 69 women) recorded their activities over eight days. They noted all their interactions with others and whether these were positive or negative. They were also given stress tests and saliva samples were taken to measure biological markers for inflammation.
The researchers found that cytokine levels went up after "negative" interactions, usually arguments. But playing competitive sports didn't have the same effect. However, the researchers noted that the study subjects played “friendly games," and that high-stakes sports could be more stressful and thereby trigger inflammation.
Stress Run Amok
A carryover from early man, stress is part of the fight-or-flight response necessary for survival. It activates the immune system in preparation for fighting infection and healing wounds—a good thing if you’re facing a woolly mammoth. However if you aren't wounded, inflammatory cytokines are circulating with no place to go causing low-grade inflammation.
Over time, chronic stress and inflammation can contribute to the buildup of artery-blocking plaque and contribute to disorders linked to an out-of-control immune system, such as asthma.
While you can’t always avoid conflict and other stressful situations, there are things you can do to reduce stress and its damaging health effects:
- Sharpen your coping skills. There are many great books on the topic in your local library or bookstore.
- Foster a healthy social network of family and friends for support in stressful situations.
- Participate in activities that have been shown to reduce stress such as:
- yoga, meditation or prayer.
- listening to music, getting a massage, or cuddling with your pet or spouse.
- regular exercise.
- Look for ways to prevent stress. This might include avoiding unnecessary conflict, not over committing yourself, and being assertive by dealing with a situation before it escalates.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and omega 3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation. Limit foods that that are high in saturated fats (like red meat and full-fat dairy products) that promote inflammation.
For more ideas, read Practical Ways to Strike a Work/Life Balance and Reduce Stress.
Health Day News
U.S. News & World Report