Inflammation of MindBodySpirit
What makes a person healthy or unhealthy? Is it the state of their body? Or perhaps clarity of mind? Or is it related to how peaceful they are? There is now over 40 years of concentrated research on how mind, body, and spirit are connected when looking at the health of the human. Studies abound linking thoughts, emotions, mindset, and stress to our physical health and vice versa. Entire new branches of medicine have been formed over the last few decades to explore and expand upon the link of internal and external parts of wellness, including Psychosomatic Medicine, Mind-Body Medicine, and Functional Medicine. Teams of previously separate specialists are working together to figure out just how our body systems are intimately connected and driving either health or disease. Neuropsychiatry - a blend of psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience - was one of the first, with expansion of combined fields such as Neuroendocrinology and Psychoneuroimmunology. Likewise, in the world of spiritual wellness, books, research papers and new theories abound on how best to support a long, healthy life.
Dr. Candace Pert, one of the pioneers of Mind-Body Medicine said, “Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.” In the 30 years since that statement, significant research has been completed and treatment options have been born to bridge that gap between mind and body. Many medical schools have added courses on Mind-Body connection and intervention as well as entire research departments to expand on our knowledge and provide more evidence-based results. Research is leading the way, mind-body interventions are accepted more as mainstream healthcare, and the public demand for supportive, holistic, alternative healthcare is growing (Brower, 2006). However, out in practice the holistic approach and standardization of mind-body treatments given to the average patient remain somewhat elusive. Except in the world of research, many of the disciplines remain, in practice, predominantly separate in their specialities and holistic, comprehensive approaches to diagnosis and treatment of patients remains nebulous to primary care practice. And while we have an enormous amount of data linking the health of mind and body, we have no definitive data on how to address the spiritual aspect of the patient.
We have decades of research telling us exactly how the body and mind are connected in theory, new information arriving so fast that curriculums at medical schools, psychology, coaching and therapy programs can’t keep up. “According to the mind–body or biopsychosocial paradigm, which supercedes the older biomedical model, there is no real division between mind and body because of networks of communication that exist between the brain and neurological, endocrine and immune systems,” said Oakley Ray, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University” (Vitetta, 2020). Yet, even bolstered with this knowledge, standard treatments of common ailments continue to remain in one field or the other. There is very little research, very few common and accepted treatment plans, and very little widespread acceptance of what I call the MindBodySpirit: exploring, approaching, understanding, treating and diagnosing the patient as one entity with interconnected parts (mind, body, spirit) contributing equally and interchangeably to their current health challenges.
Many have studied the linear, or causal relationship between mind and body as well as a more correlational connection where a certain state of the mind increases the likelihood of a reaction in the body and vice versa. However, these approaches to the relationship between mind and body assume a separate entity within us affecting the other. And even in the case of a correlative association, the relationship has still been approached as linear. Action – reaction. One, then the other, regardless of which condition came first. Although many of these new branches of medicine are emphatically stating the mind and body are intimately connected they are still approaching studying it as a whole made of very distinct parts. What if instead of looking at cause and effect we look at correlated reactions within the whole? What are the patterns of the MindBodySpirit, one entity? When we find a physical diagnosis of Diabetes, for example, can we assume there are correlating emotional and spiritual challenges (different for every person) that we should address for the mind and the spirit to allow for a possible full resolution of the ailment? The three main parts of us, that make us uniquely who we are, are not at all separate but entirely interconnected. Our fears and joys intimately connected to our actions, our attitudes, thoughts and emotions tied to how we treat our bodies within the environment we inhabit. And if this is the case, shouldn’t we then just empirically treat the mind, the body and the spirit as one entity with every diagnosis?
It is easy to see how this can be done with mind and body. The spiritual aspect of patients, however, is much more nebulous and a fairly taboo subject in relation to treatment regimens in medicine and much of psychology. We all have different beliefs regarding how the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ takes part in healing. Studies on prayer, energy work, spiritual healing, and religious-based miracles are inconsistent in their findings, partially due to such a subjective topic not adhering strictly to the scientific method. There are theological inconsistencies and it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure all the independent and confounding variables that are important in such research (Andrade & Radhakrishnan, 2009).
Regardless of these constraints there are studies showing many of us agree that healing does, in fact, involve our spirit. Individuals from a large primary care setting in Washington agreed that healing is a multidimensional process with physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions” (Hsu, Phillips, Sherman, Hawkes, & Cherkin, 2008). Most of us who have been in the healing professions for many years have seen that undefinable, sacred something in our patients that contributed in one way or another to their health. There are countless doctors, shamans, spiritual, religious, and thought leaders who have written incredible books, formed schools, courses and healing institutions with the absolute faith that spirit, or soul, exists and is part of the health of each person. Lissa Rankin, MD, Bruce Lipton, PhD, Depak Chopra, MD, Andrew Weil, MD, Greg Braden, the Dalai Lama, and Dr. Wayne Dyer, just to name a few, have led the way in attempting to bring spirit into the fold of every day healthcare. There are now numerous books and research on small numbers of people who have had miraculous healing, looking at why do some people get cured and others don’t. What makes it more likely to overcome a diagnosis like cancer or suddenly have the motivation to finally get your Diabetes under control? There is almost always a spiritual or life-shifting event that allows people to shift physically.
We may not be able to prove the spirit needs to be addressed, but the mind-body link has undeniably provided a plethora of definitive research findings. There may be no greater example of a condition that exemplifies this mind-body link than inflammation. Inflammation within the body is a key risk factor for early morbidity and mortality and there are more and more indications from vast amounts of research that our emotions are intimately linked with systemic inflammation. Both observational studies and laboratory research indicate that chronic inflammation can lead to many illnesses, including many autoimmune diseases, some cardiac disease, Diabetes, and degenerative conditions that affect the brain, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. We’ve seen time and time again in hundreds of studies how negative emotional health and increased stress can contribute to inflammation. From observations in the huge Framingham Study done decades ago to the more recent and esoteric findings on the efficacy of spiritual healing (Feldman, 2017), we’ve seen how interconnected mind, body and spirit are when dealing with chronic inflammation. It may be the one condition that can serve as a platform for changing mainstream healthcare’s persistent separation of mind and body and spirit in the diagnosis and treatment of common diseases in our current healthcare system.
Merriam Webster’s definition of inflammation is “a local response to cellular injury that is marked by capillary dilatation, leukocytic infiltration, redness, heat, and pain and that serves as a mechanism initiating the elimination of noxious agents and of damaged tissue; the act of inflaming or the state of being inflamed.” The physical phenomenon of inflammation has been studied at length, broken down to the smallest chemical reaction, individually linked with a multitude of quite variable physical diseases and mental disorders. Laboratory studies over the last two decades have shown us that inflammation can affect nearly every body system. If researchers agree that nearly no body system is exempt from its reach then one can imagine that the emotional and energetic bodies are simultaneously affected by the presence of inflammation, too.
Let’s review what happens within our bodies as we experience an inflammatory response. Inflammation is a biological response of the immune system that can be triggered by a variety of factors, including pathogens, damaged cells and toxins. Ironically, it begins as a means to start the healing process to an assumed injury and is therefore essential for our health. The problem comes when this acute inflammatory process is left on and becomes chronic.
Dozens of immunological and inflammatory molecules and the pathways through which they interact have been identified in lab research over the last decade (most commonly the NF-κB, MAPK, and JAK-STAT pathways). The loops and feedback loops of those pathways mean inflammation can be turned up or down in any number of ways – which contributes to the many presentations and the many entry points to stopping it. Once begun, local inflammation may then lead to acute and/or chronic inflammatory responses in the organs as well, including the heart, pancreas, liver, kidney, lung, brain, intestinal tract and reproductive system. If left unchecked, this can potentially lead to tissue damage or disease (Chen et al, 2017).
What does an inflammatory response look like in the brain? A 2019 study revealed the molecules in our bloodstream that cause and promote inflammation in our bodies can communicate with the brain and affect how the brain works, the hormones it produces, and therefore how we think and feel (Maydych, 2019). Whereby the physical entity of inflammation becomes a whole MindBodySpirit problem. Similarly, but from the other direction, many studies have shown that some negative moods, emotional or intellectual states like depression, hostility, and anxiety often result in elevated levels of inflammatory proteins in our bloodstream (Ai, Kronfol, Seymour, & Bolling, 2005; Duivis et al., 2011; Miller, Rohleder, Stetler, & Kirschbaum, 2005; Moons & Shields, 2015; Pitsavos et al., 2006; Suarez, 2003). We know that whether inflammation begins in the peripheral body, the internal body, or the mind, we should expect to see its effects everywhere.
To explore this connection between inflammation, mind and body even further, let’s look at the condition of arthritis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three Americans, an estimated seventy million people, is affected by arthritis. In fact, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States. While the many forms of arthritis have very different causes, risk factors and effects on the body, they all share a common symptom—persistent joint pain. Pain of any kind certainly has emotional ties. In fact, studies show that emotional factors are crucial to the development of Rheumatoid Arthritis - usually unexpressed anger, resentment, aggression, criticism (of self and others), lack of support, and fear. It is also common, and in one study more than half, (Lisitsyna, 2009) for people with RA to have experienced some sort of emotional trauma prior to onset of the diagnosis. Traumas that occur when you are young can hinder the full development of your immune system. This, in turn, can leave you susceptible to infections, further unchecked inflammatory responses, chronic diseases and decreased life span.
Inflammation’s connection to not just the physical, but also the cognitive, emotional and spiritual health has been well documented. When our physical bodies experience inflammation, then, would it not be surprising to have a corresponding or concomitant emotional inflammation? And what would spiritual inflammation look like for individual patients? How would our therapeutic approaches change if we assumed there was some form of inflammation present within all three aspects of our Self when were alerted to just the one?
Just like inflammation within our bodies, emotional inflammation can be caused by many different things and lead to a multitude of unique presentations within the human population. We know that some people with abnormally elevated blood sugars get Diabetes but not all. We know that some people with risk factors get heart disease, and some of those go on to have a heart attack, but certainly not all. Chronic inflammation is associated with Alzheimers dementia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, depression, and various gastrointestinal conditions, but not everyone who has higher than average inflammatory blood markers develop these conditions. All are associated with inflammation but with vastly very different presentations of it.
The process of emotional inflammation mirrors what happens within our bodies to physical inflammation. Physically, an injury or threat occurs and our bodies ramp up the protection response. Just like in the body, a perceived psychological threat triggers many mental, emotional, and physical systems to be activated to respond to the assumed hazard. The fight or flight response, or activation of the sympathetic nervous system, acutely causes elevated levels of epinephrine and cortisol which increases heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood cholesterol (Mayo Clinic, Healthy-Lifestyle, 2019).
Acutely, both physically and mentally, our response can be shut down and we can go back to our baseline, neutral status. However, two issues arise here. One, what if your baseline status isn’t neutral? What if you had repeated threats and haven’t yet (or ever in your adult life) gone back down to ‘neutral’? In one recent study, those who didn’t have a positive affect when a minor, daily stress event occurred had significant elevation of serum inflammatory markers as compared to those with a baseline, generally positive affect (Sin, Graham-England, Ong & Almeida, 2015). So, it matters what your baseline affect is. Second, what if the perceived threat continues for long periods of time, not allowing the backing off of your protection mechanisms? This leads to chronic inflammation.
And just as chronic physical disease or pain causes our hormonal, neurological and immunological systems to define a new “normal” within us, our mental and emotional states are altered as well. Just as we are less able to physically withstand further threats to our bodies when we are chronically inflamed, our emotional state is rendered less robust when faced with persistent challenges (Lumley et al, 2011). Emotionally, we find ourselves attaching to distorted and inaccurate thoughts, feelings and ideas about ourselves. This can negatively impact our sense of self, purpose and meaning.
When our bodies face inflammation, our immune system steps up to protect us. However, as inflammation becomes chronic it wears down the immune system and renders it dramatically less capable of repairing itself. It’s not so different in emotional inflammation – our emotional resilience and strength is challenged. Because none of us want to feel badly physically or struggle emotionally, chronic inflammation becomes a frustrating and disappointing condition that can cause us to turn against ourselves. Just as autoimmune responses are an attack on the body’s defense system, we also tend to turn against ourselves psychologically as we face what is perceived to be an assault that is out of our control. This can result in a cognitive and emotional self-attack. Our internal chemical immune response is necessary, as it stimulates the body to repair itself after injury. However, a chronic and severe stress response has the opposite effect. The same is true with our thoughts and emotions.
The level of emotional inflammation we hold is affected by our cumulative, unique, subjective perceptions of life experiences. How we perceive our life experiences determines what we tell ourselves, either positive or negative. When we interpret painful experiences as an attack on our well-being, as out of our control, or something we ourselves caused, we experience inflammatory reactions such as anger, frustration, and withdrawal. Our desire to protect ourselves from further hurt is then driven by inflammatory emotions such as guilt, shame, betrayal, insecurity, hopelessness, powerlessness and unworthiness.
And, so begins the negative narrative which creates our story, or our internal life map, that affects how we approach and deal with further experiences. Our mistaken, altered, negative belief systems and repetitive negative thoughts and emotions then are the emotional version of chronic pain and swelling. These emotional and mental narratives and subsequent chronic , emotional inflammation become physical entities by way of neuronal patterning and re-patterning in our brains. Psychologist Deann Ware, Ph.D., explains that when brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens and “the messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster.” With enough repetition, these thought patterns or behaviors become automatic.
Research has shown us we do have the ability to actually see the effects of our mental health in the structure of our brains. Each emotion we have essentially has its own neural signature seen on MRI. (Saarimaki et al, 2016; Kassam, 2013) We have also seen the physical changes possible in the improvement of our mental health with the acute lowering of inflammatory markers. Reversing the course of chronic inflammation and the long-term effects it yields is possible. The results of review of 18 studies all looking at gene expression in relation to meditation and other Mind-Body Interventions (MBI) found overall downregulation of NF-κB-targeted (inflammatory-causing) genes. As stated in the study, “this can be seen as the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress. Even though the study designs, the population, and the types of MBI evaluated in the studies in this review varied, the findings indicate that some of the psychological and physical benefits of MBIs are linked to biological changes in the inflammatory genes (Huijbregts, 2010).”
Using functional and structural MR imaging, researchers have documented the patterns and details of the brains of subjects living with depression and anxiety and suffering from repetitive, negative thought patterns; they’ve even seen just where the feelings love or fear, and anxiety, just to name a few, are held in the brain (Kowalski, Wypych, Marchewka & Dragan, 2019; Cooney, Joormann, Eugène, Dennis & Gotlib, 2010). However, this structure or patterning we see of our brain isn’t as static as we once believed. We were taught that you’re born with a certain number of braincells and that over the course of your life they begin to die. There is now great research to show that our brain can actually grow to accommodate cognitive demand. One example of this is the well-known London cab driver study which showed that the longer someone had been driving a taxi, the larger their hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in visual-spatial memory. Their brains literally grew bigger over time as they learned how to negotiate London's streets (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006). Similar findings have been seen in studies looking at medical students digesting enormous amounts of information in a short time. Could we also grow the parts of our brain devoted to resilience, love, hope, and kindness?
Many of us aren’t going to be physically challenged to learn enough new information that our brains are pushed to expand. Can we instead improve the efficiency or the function of our brain? Can we learn new ways to approach our life, our challenges, and beat the constant barrage of inflammation and reactivity? Over the past 20 years many studies have taught us that neuroplasticity, the ongoing remodeling of brain structure and function, does, in fact, also occur throughout life. It can be affected by life experiences, genes, exercise, biological agents, by our behavior as well as by new thought patterns. Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief, discusses how our genes, which were once thought to be a static factor in our health, can be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ by our beliefs (thoughts and emotions), environment, and nutrition. Lipton tells us that our genes are simply the blueprints, but we are the contractors and we can adjust and even rewrite those blueprints.
Who we are mentally becomes who we are physically.
There has been plenty of research on the prevalence of physical symptoms in the body associated with psychological disorders, mostly focused on clinically diagnosed anxiety and depression. (Huijbregts et al, 2010; Binzer, Andersen & Kullgren, 1997; Sluijs et al, 2015) Most of these studies show that when those diagnosed with depression or anxiety have significant somatic (body) symptoms as well, they tend to experience treatment resistance and a worse outcome (Sluijs et al, 2015). Attempting to change their brain chemistry (reaching for only one paradigm of the MindBodySpirit) doesn’t address the entirety of their experience. In other words, it’s not just all in their head – it’s perhaps in their body and soul, too.
Decades of research has shown us that certain physical conditions are associated with various mental challenges, and certain mental disorders convey an increased likelihood of having certain somatic realities. But many of these studies looked at pathological states, patients with clinical diagnoses. What is happening to the whole of the MindBodySpirit with persistent subclinical complaints? Every ailment has an associated physical, mental and spiritual aspect.
Have we picked up emotions through our lives like dirty laundry and never let them go? Is there subsequent energetic inflammation that leads to roadblocks to us being our best selves? Could it be possible that this emotional clutter ends up acting like a threat to our well-beings? What if the excess of thoughts and emotions act like extra fats within the bloodstream? Should we wait until we have the heart attack to address them? We know that extra sugar and fats in the bloodstream lead to extra storage of fats in the body. This storage of fat leads to inflammation. This inflammation can lead to all sorts of disease, like certain Cancers, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, or Heart Attack and early death. How long is subclinical inflammation present in one aspect of us before it leads to chronic physical disease or clinical mental disorder?
This conundrum is seen clearly in the problem of obesity and overweight status. Around 70% of the US population is overweight and around 80% of those folks have lost weight but gained it all, and sometimes more, back (Wing & Phelan, 2005). We are carrying extra weight on our bodies that we don’t need and haven’t figured out yet how to permanently let go of. It mirrors cognitive-associative disorder in that we get stuck on the merry-go-round of weight gain, never finding weight maintenance for long. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that if we get good at carrying extra fat on our bodies that we may be carrying around extra emotional weight as well. Many of us tend to be emotional pack rats. We carry emotions, thoughts, feelings, stories, and philosophies with us through life. Some that we haven’t even really looked at for a while or re-evaluated to see if they even make sense to carry around. Like a box we simply take while moving from one house to the next, never opening it to look inside to see if we should keep it. We guard these emotional and thought-pattern boxes, posting sentries of fat layers and defensive systems around them so that, over the years, we can no longer easily access them.
The extra pounds we carry are, in essence, extra, stored, energy. Every calorie we store is energy waiting to be used. Our body is amazingly efficient at holding on to this extra energy in case we need it later. But we never seem to, do we? We are, sadly, not as efficient at utilizing this extra energy since most of us simply provide our body the next meal instead of using stored calories. It seems we are always saving our calories for a rainy day that never comes. What does this look like from an emotional or energetic standpoint? If we are physically holding back using our stored energy, are we also holding back from using our emotional and energetic stores? What or who could we be in our lives if we became more efficient? If we took stock, really and truly and honestly, of what we are made of? All of our various emotions, thoughts, fears, stories, and life patterns?
We know without a doubt that extra sugar in our bloodstream can cause inflammation which can lead to all kinds of disease. But what about the extra thoughts, stories, or feelings that we’re still holding on to that no longer serve us? Perhaps they’re not even ours, but handed down from previous generations. What is this Emotional Inflammation doing to our BodyMindSpirit? How is it changing our genetics to affect the next generation?
How can we begin to undo the avoidance of dealing with this emotional inflammation? We know that avoidance-oriented negative emotions, such as fear and shame, have been linked to greater inflammatory activity (Dickerson, Kemeny, Aziz, Kim, & Fahey, 2004; Moons, Eisenberger, & Taylor, 2010). But avoidance indicates our choice in not dealing with our problems. What about when our power is taken from us and we lack autonomy? A 2006 study in BMJ found over a 14-year period that those with low level jobs that have high stress and low levels of autonomy were more than twice as likely to have Metabolic Syndrome (an inflammatory condition and a precursor to Diabetes) than those without work stress. These people were also more inclined to die prematurely. We know from extensive previous research that Diabetes is intimately linked to heart disease and both are directly related to chronic inflammation. This study shows not just the cumulative effects of stress but also a negative mentality (ie chronic lack of autonomy at work) causing inflammation within the body (Chandola, Brunner & Marmot, 2006).
What is incredible is that these physical changes to our bodies that both thoughts and emotions bring isn’t necessarily contained to within our own bodies. Many studies have indicated that the physical changes created by emotions and thoughts can then translate to genetic changes that could affect future generations (Faraji et al, 2017; Ambeskovic et al, 2017; , Pembrey et al, 2014; Dias & Ressler, 2013). Many of these changes studied were brought on my trauma and extreme stress, like in the case of Holocaust survivors (Yehuda et al, 2016). But what about subtle, chronic emotional stress or inflammation? What about chronic energetic stress or discordance? Is there an invisible emotional inflammation we’ve inherited from our birth families or ancestors that we haven’t recognized in our lives? Playing out in myriad of physical ways as we age?
Although the understanding that emotions and thoughts affect physical health dates as far back as the second-century physician Galen, it wasn’t until the last 30 years or so, with the help of magnetic resonance and the explosion of now known biochemical pathways that we began to see the physical science behind the link. Studying just how the spirit and soul within us change our physical health, however, has proven quite difficult. It seems the scientific method is nearly impossible to apply to something as intangible as spirit.
There are just as many proven theories on prayer as there are debunked, according to an article looking at numerous randomized control trials on prayer (Andrade & Radhakrishnan, 2009). Interestingly, however, in a study done on meditation showed that spiritual meditation was found to be superior to secular meditation and relaxation in terms of decrease in anxiety and improvement in positive mood, spiritual health, spiritual experiences and tolerance to pain (Wachholtz, 2005). I take that to mean that perhaps there are challenges to obtaining definitive research findings when calling on an external source of power due to too many variables. However, there doesn’t seem to be the same challenges but when studying people drawing from an internal source of sacred power.
Candace Pert, PhD helped to create Mind-Body Medicine in the 1970’s and 1980’s and studied the links between mind and body until her death in 2013. Dr. Pert once commented in an interview, “We’ve all heard about Psychosomatic Illness, but have you heard about Psychosomatic Wellness?” She’d be happy to know that since that statement, many healing modalities have arrived on the mindful medicine stage.
One such modality that has seen an increase in use is meditation. There are now literally thousands of studies on its benefits. And if longevity adds to the validity of its use then there’s really no valid argument against it. According to Wikipedia, there is written evidence of the practice in India dating back to 1500 BCE, and uncovered art hinting at its practice since around 5000 BCE. Anyone who practices the art can validate some of its benefits but the hard data has come in as well. Meditation has been found to produce a clinically significant reduction in resting as well as ambulatory blood pressure (Barnes, Davis, Murzynowski & Treiber, 2004; Anerson, Liu & Kryscio, 2008), to reduce heart rate (Solberg et al, 2004), to result in cardiorespiratory synchronization (Cysarz & Bissing, 2005), to alter levels of melatonin and serotonin (Soberg et al, 2004), to suppress cortisol, boosting the immune response (Van Wijk, Ludtke & Wijk, 2008), to reduce stress and promote positive mood states (Bonadonna, 2003), and to reduce anxiety and pain and enhance self-esteem (Williams et al, 2005).
There are many forms of meditation one can use as well as other mindful techniques used to achieve the same goal. Researchers at Coventry University performed a systematic review of 18 different MBI (Mind-Body Interventions) studies and concluded that varied mind-body practices such as mindfulness, yoga, and tai chi (as well as meditation) all appear to have the similar effect of reversing the molecular signature caused by chronic stress and the expression of pro-inflammatory genes (Buric et al, 2017). A new study from Boston University School of Medicine released last month also revealed just one yoga class a week increases levels of GABA (a regulatory brain neurotransmitter involved in balanced mood) to the point of mitigating depressive symptoms (Streeter et al, 2020). Studies like these continue to help us definitively link the mind, body, and spirit into the inseparable, whole person.
On the other side of the spectrum from quieting the mind, one study found that the breadth of feeling may improve mental health. Previous research has identified a correlation between negative emotions and inflammation, but this may be the first study to identify that people who experience a diversity of positive emotions appear to have lower levels of systemic inflammation. It turns out that experiencing a diversity of emotions might reduce vulnerability to affective psychopathology by preventing an overabundance or prolonging of any one emotion from dominating an individuals’ emotional life (Ong, Benson, Zautra & Ram, 2017). On that same thread but on the opposite spectrum, another study found that emotional suppression may convey risk for earlier death (Chapman, 2013). Imagine that – really acknowledging the vastness of who we are and what we feel – acknowledging, exploring, processing or simply letting go of one emotion to feel the next, and so on, thereby activating different parts of your brain in the process could help avoid inflammation and lead to living longer. Perhaps not getting stuck in one place mentally mirrors not getting stuck in one place physically.
Now that we’ve linked our parts into a beautiful, intricate whole – MindBodySpirt – the next step is to make the small shifts, over time, in our lives that will decrease inflammation and support our wholeness. Here are some wonderful ways to begin:
Encouraging the relaxation response in the parasympathetic nervous system – this is basically what meditation does, but can be achieved through whatever means calls to you, for example: slow swimming, deep breathing, listening to music, dancing, body work, energy work, chanting, praying, walking through or sitting quietly in a forest, etc.
Identifying areas of stress in our lives we can then eliminate or limit. There is much in our lives that is not in our direct control, but there is often more than we think. It can be as simple as leaving 5 minutes early to avoid running to the bus stop and getting a better seat on the bus; taking a more scenic route on your commute that allows you to see the cherry blossoms in Spring, listening to your favorite music or a funny podcast instead of the news when traffic gets bad, redirecting the conversation with your mom when she’s lecturing you, or lending a helping hand to a stranger who dropped her bag of groceries. Rewriting our stories and changing our mindset takes energy and persistence but it can be done.
Increasing the nutrition in our diet – immune-supportive foods like broccoli, leafy greens, and turmeric have been shown to boost health and lower systemic inflammation. Flavonoids in cocoa and blueberries and antioxidants in green tea have been shown to increase neuroplasticity in your brain.
Developing supportive lifestyle habits and self-care practices – for example, exercise, meditation, various forms of psychotherapy, journaling, visual imagery, hypnosis, art, reading, forest bathing, and grounding. All of these activities support the individual’s growth, thereby encouraging neuronal plasticity and the growth of new brain synapses, neurological (parasympathetic and sympathetic) balance, improved mood, personal empowerment and resiliency.
Tending to our gut microbiome by adding beneficial bacteria and eliminating toxins. There are now numerous studies showing the connection between intestinal microbiome health and depression, inflammatory disorders, dementia, and nutritional deficiencies which can lead to all sorts of both physical and psychological stress. We know there is a direct connection between the physical health of our gut and our brain and immune system, so it cannot be overlooked when aiming for our highest health.
There are what feels like a million articles, blogs and self-help books written on the topic of cleaning up, organizing and de-cluttering. And for good reason: it’s important for your exterior to help mirror your interior, and vice versa. It’s essential for there to be space in your life (physically and intellectually) for you to grow. To expand. To evolve. If there is clutter around you taking up your energy, zapping your creative juices or limiting your ability to fully show up in your day then you can’t fully show up in the rest of your life. Throw out, give away, and let go of what is no longer serving you in your life. This means papers, books, clothing, equipment in your garage, old family furniture, habits, toxic stories, and self-doubt.
As we’ve discovered throughout this discussion, it’s not surprising that the above actions can address all the inflammation we are struggling with - physical, emotional and spiritual alike. It’s great news, since you know if you simply pick ONE area to focus on for now, all the other areas in your life will be positively affected. Honor your entire being and make the small shifts, now, to ensure the rest of your life is the best it can be. You only have this one body in this one lifetime. Why wait another second?