Inflammation has become somewhat of a buzzword lately, with a slew of health experts chiming in to mention what it does to our body and how to fight inflammation. But the truth is, inflammation is not something new—evolutionarily, it’s been with us all along—it’s just we’re more prone to chronic inflammation today because of the stressors of our modern lifestyle. Let’s take a look at what inflammation is, what it can do to your body, and the mental trick that can help fight inflammation.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is defined as “a localized reaction that produces redness, warmth, swelling, and pain.” Sounds unpleasant, right? But not all inflammation is bad! Our bodies actually require temporary (acute) inflammation to ward off infections or heal from minor cuts or sprains. Our ancestor’s bodies produced acute inflammation to quickly escape predators or heal from injury. It’s when inflammation doesn’t “turn itself off” that it becomes chronic and, in turn, problematic. During chronic inflammation, the body mistakenly attacks normal cells, causing them harm. John Hopkins Medical University explains that chronic inflammation can lead to major health problems, such as:
- Autoimmune disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurological disease
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Now that you know the havoc chronic inflammation can wreak on your body, let’s look at what causes it. Chronic inflammation can be caused by several things, including:
- Persistent injury or infection
- Prolonged exposure to a toxic agent
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Poor dietary choices (excess sugar, dairy, refined grains, artificial additives)
- Chronic stress
The last point—stress—is a factor that has significantly changed over the course of human evolution. Humans have adapted over the years to carry the gene CTRA, which stands for conserved transcriptional response to adversity, and is responsible for higher inflammation. Again, short-term inflammation used to serve us well when we were escaping a predator, or even today when we need to heal from a minor injury. But with today’s constant deadlines, 24-hour news cycle, and constant stressors, our brains now have the tendency to activate CTRA long-term, contributing to chronic inflammation. While running late for work and receiving endless emails definitely don’t seem as bad as being chased by a hyena, there is something different about our modern-day stress: it’s never-ending. Because of this, the chemical in our brain that signals inflammation (i.e: outrun! Heal! Clot!) doesn’t get turned off, and chronic inflammation can occur.
While you might already know that certain anti-inflammatory foods can help fight inflammation, you might not know that your mind can be a powerful anti-inflammatory tool as well. If you suspect chronic inflammation is present in your life, you should consult with your doctor and aim to heal your body by making lifestyle changes like eating a more balanced diet, getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and maintaining a healthy weight. But you can also employ a simple mental shift that’s been scientifically proven to help fight inflammation, too.
Related: 6 Foods That Fight Inflammation
How Self-Compassion Fights Inflammation
Here’s where your usual advice about fighting inflammation may be lacking: the mind-body connection is heavily involved with inflammation. Interested in the connection between modern stress and inflammation, a study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity measured the relationship between mental stress, and inflammation. Participants in the study were given a complex math test and told to complete it in front of judges before giving a public speech about their experience—a day that puts one under considerable mental stress. At the end of the day, the researchers took blood samples from all participants and found that the common societal stressors (tests, public speaking, fear of embarrassment) increased the levels of inflammation interleukin-6 (a pro-inflammatory protein) in ALL participants.
But here’s the catch: before completing these stress-inducing tasks, the researchers measured each participant’s level of self-acceptance. The participants whose self-acceptance levels were highest before the stressful day showed the lowest levels of inflammation at the end of the stressful day, suggesting that self-compassion is capable of lowering inflammation in the body. As the study concludes, “these findings suggest self-compassion may serve as a protective factor against stress-induced inflammation and inflammation-related disease.”
The mind-body connection is ever-astounding, and while staying healthy is about many things (eating nutritious food, exercising, and other factors), self-compassion should absolutely be among the ways you take care of your mind and body. So here’s a challenge for you to not only improve your mood but fight inflammation in your body: the next time you’re having a stressful day, practice self-compassion.
Methods of Self-Compassion
- Change the way you talk to yourself. The things we say to ourselves often go unnoticed. If you make a mistake at work or spill coffee all over your new blouse, you may internally say to yourself “I’m so stupid, I can’t believe I did that.” Try saying this sentence in your mind to someone else: not so nice, is it? The words you say to yourself are just as important as those you speak to others.
- Give yourself a time out. When you feel overwhelmed, broken, angry, sad, or stressed, don’t just keep pushing your body and mind: take a break. When a child is too worked up or overly tired and emotional, we encourage them to take a moment to pause, reflect, and breathe. Pay attention to your inner child. What does she/he need? Five minutes of calm breathing? A cup of tea and some relaxing music? Take a time out to pay attention to your breath, your needs, your soul. Just five minutes can make a huge difference in how you carry out the rest of your day, and it’s pretty hard to say you don’t have time for five minutes no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
- List your positive attributes. Next time you’re overly hard on yourself, jot down five things you like about yourself or your day. They can be as simple as your smile or as deep as the fact that you are alive to enjoy another sunrise. Be grateful for your strengths and the good things in your day, and your attitude can shift in a matter of minutes.
- Remember that self-compassion breeds compassion for others. It’s hard to be have compassion for other people if you’re not showing it to yourself. Think of it this way: if you get mad at yourself for making a simple mistake, you’re probably going to get mad at someone else for doing that, too—even though you might not verbalize it to them. Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can—including you. Cut the world (and yourself) a little slack.
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