Labeling And Understanding Our Emotions May Reduce Inflammation And Improve Health

 

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A study conducted in New Zealand, involving 1,037 children, assessed these young people according to :

  • the degree to which they had suffered maltreatment as children

  • which socio-economic group they belonged

  • the extent to which they had suffered social isolation

Thirty years after this assessment had been made, the same individuals were assessed again, in a follow-up study, in order to determine to what degree their health had been negatively impacted by the above three factors (i.e. childhood maltreatment, socio-economic group in childhood, and extent of social isolation in childhood).

RESULTS OF THE STUDY :

It was found that those individuals who had experienced both significant social isolation and maltreatment as children, and, additionally, had grown up in poverty, were at double the average risk of :

  • inflammation

  • depression

  • obesity

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND THE INFLAMMATORY IMMUNE SYSTEM :

A meta-analysis conducted by Baumeister et al. (2015) found a significant association between childhood trauma and inflammation and the researchers concluded that there now exists strong evidence that individuals who suffer traumatic events during childhood are at greatly elevated risk of developing a dysregulated inflammatory immune system which, in turn, leads to an increased risk of developing both psychiatric and physical disorders in later life.

Indeed, it is now becoming increasingly recognized that the dysregulation of the immune system as a result of childhood trauma may be implicated in the later development of not just depression and obesity (as identified by the New Zealand study referred to at the beginning of this article) but it may also be the biological mechanism responsible for mediating the association between childhood trauma and the later development of many other physical and psychiatric conditions such as psychosis, anxiety, PTSD, complex PTSD, borderline personality disorder, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lung disease and metabolic syndrome and potentially, substantially reduce an individual’s life expectancy.

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA LEADING TO INFLAMMATION BRAIN:

Research on the brain carried out by McCarthy suggests that if a child is subjected to significant, chronic stress, particularly when the cause of this stress is unpredictable (eg due to a hostile, abusive, unstable parent prone to random explosions of terrifying rage), s/he may develop brain inflammation.

This is a recent finding – until not long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that brain inflammation could only be caused by physical damage to the brain, not psychological damage. However, this theory has now been discredited. It now appears that when a child is exposed to the type of chronic stress described above, the action of vital cells in his/her brain (called microglial cells) is disrupted, leading them to go haywire and run amock; it is thought that when their action is disrupted in this manner they start to destroy other neurons (brain cells) that, prior to their destruction, were beneficial to the brain.  

Research suggests that the main neurons that the microglial cells destroy are involved in reasoning and impulse control. Therefore, of course, it follows that, due to the adverse action of microglial cells caused by chronic stress, the individual’s ability to control his/her impulses, and to reason, will be impaired.

These rogue microglial cells are also believed to reduce the volume of both grey and white matter in the brain, leading to anxiety, depression, and even psychosis.  And, as if this weren’t bad enough, they also seem to inhibit the regeneration of neurons (brain cells) in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus; this, too, is liable to contribute yet further to mental illness.

Related Animal Study Provides Hope:

A related research study involved rats being exposed to chronic stress. This resulted, as the researchers intended, in the microglial cells in the rats’ brains being damaged (as too, we have seen from the above, this occurs in humans). This resulted in the rats behaving in a highly stressed manner.

However, when the researchers reintroduced healthy microglial cells into their brains, the rats’ observable stressed behavior was ameliorated. This finding provides hope that, in the future, we may be able to extrapolate from this experiment and relieve human stress-related problems, where applicable, in a similar manner.

Also, meditation, properly done, has been scientifically proved to reduce inflammation, as can the labeling of emotions which I explain below:    

Labeling And Understanding Our Emotions

As we have seen, if, as children, we grew up in an environment in which we were subjected to severe stress over protracted periods of time the way in which our internal physiological systems would normally operate may be seriously compromised. Such long-lasting stress may be caused by various factors such as abuse or neglect. In her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain, the author, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains the theory that this kind of stress can adversely affect the area of the brain that she refers to as the interoceptive network.

What Is The Interoceptive Network?

This is a brain region that consists of:

  • the prefrontal cortex
  • the insula
  • the striatum
  • the cingulate 

What Does The Interoceptive Network Do?

The interoceptive network functions to make us aware of our internal body state feelings, regulate bodily physiological purposes and keep the body in a state of homeostasis (homeostasis means a relatively stable internal physiology).

Chronic Stress, Homeostasis, The Mind-Body Effect, And Physical Health:

Chronic stress during childhood can disrupt homeostasis by damaging the interoceptive network and reducing the amount of tissue it contains (literally shrinking it in physical size by a process of cellular atrophy)via the mind-body effect (the mind-body effect refers to the phenomenon whereby our feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes may affect our internal biological functioning and, as a consequence, our actual physical health.

As described by Segerstrom (2006), prolonged stress leads to the body producing excessive amounts of the stress hormone known as cortisol and this, in turn, reduces cortisol’s ability to regulate the body’s inflammatory and immune responses Whilst a certain amount of inflammation is beneficial, when, due to chronic, severe stress, the inflammation process becomes dysregulated, it can result in the breakdown of healthy tissue and a diminution of the effectiveness of the immune system.

Chaotic families, Family Conflict, And Repeated Criticism:

Feldman Barrett points out that it is not just unambiguous abuse and neglect that can lead to the kind of chronic stress which results in dysregulated inflammatory processes, weakened immunity, and, subsequently, poor physical health but also the stressful effect of living in a chaotic environment can have on the child or the effect of living in a family in which there is a high level of conflict or in a family in which the child is frequently criticized over an extended period of time.

Bullying:

Also, Feldman Barrett states, that children who are bullied at school may also develop problems related to inflammation and these problems can extend into their adult lives, thus also increasing their risk of developing both physical and psychiatric illnesses.

The Good News: Whilst the above is, of course, concerning, Feldman Barrett also explains that individuals with high emotional intelligence who ‘categorize, label and understand‘ their emotions, according to research, may increase their chances of recovering both from stressful experiences and from physical diseases related to stress. And, this being the case, Feldman Barrett infers that individuals who are able to ‘categorize their interoceptive sensations as emotions’ may reduce their risk of problematic inflammation, thus also reducing their chances of ill health.

Research Into Benefits Of Labelling Emotions:

A study conducted by Lieberman et al. involved participants being shown photographs of angry faces whilst measuring brain activity. It was found that when participants were exposed to these photographs there was an increase in activity in the region of the brain called the amygdala which is sometimes referred to as the brain’s alarm centre it is activated when a threat is perceived.

Indeed, this increased activity occurred even when the photographs were presented to the participants subliminally; this is not surprising as the amygdala evolved to warn us of potential danger as quickly as possible and acts on an unconscious level. However, when the participants were exposed to the angry faces with the label ‘angry’ attached, the intensity of the amygdala’s reaction was reduced.

Furthermore, when the participants labeled the faces as angry activity in another part of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, increased and it has been hypothesized that this area of the brain helps to inhibit emotional responses. Lieberman and his colleagues also found that practicing mindfulness increases the activity of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and reduces activity in the amygdala.

Summary Of Some Of The Benefits Of Labelling Our Emotions:

  • It reduces the unpleasant physiological arousal strong emotions induce
  • It helps us to control our emotions
  • It decreases emotional reactivity
  • Individuals who dismiss, fail to acknowledge, and suppress their emotions tend to have a poorer sense of well being
  • Labeling emotions activates the part of the brain that controls negative feelings and stop them spiraling out of control.
  • Labelling emotions helps to convert visceral feelings into a more concrete concept that can be analyzed and more rationally considered

  REFERENCES:

Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain, Pan Books. 2017

Matthew D. Lieberman, et al. Putting Feelings Into Words. Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli University of California, Los Angeles

McCarthy RC, Sosa JC, Gardeck AM, Baez AS, Lee CH, Wessling-Resnick M. Inflammation-induced iron transport and metabolism by brain microglia. J Biol Chem. 2018 May 18;293(20):7853-7863. doi: 10.1074/jbc.RA118.001949. Epub 2018 Apr 2. PMID: 29610275; PMCID: PMC5961037    

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