Inflammation has become a significant buzzword around physical health in the wellness community. It has been correlated to the occurrence of many illnesses, including almost all autoimmune diseases and degenerative conditions that affect the brain, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The interrelationship between physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual health has been well documented. Each system affects the other. When our physical bodies are affected by inflammation, it can result in an effect that can be conceptualized as emotional inflammation. We attach to distorted and inaccurate thoughts, feelings and ideas about ourselves, which negatively impacts our sense of purpose and meaning. Emotional inflammation disconnects us from our true sense of self, which can also result in spiritual inflammation.
When our bodies are inflamed, our immune system steps up to protect us. However, due to the intensity, prevalence and chronic nature of inflammation, it wears down the immune system and renders it dramatically less capable of repairing itself. As our bodies and minds are designed to be in good health, 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. This can result in a cognitive and emotional self-attack. The 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.
Emotional inflammation can be acute or chronic and is characterized by a severe state of intense and painful emotional reactivity. Our unique subjective perception of life, experiences and events determines what we tell ourselves, either positive or negative. When we interpret painful experiences as a fault of or attack on ourselves, we experience inflammatory reactions such as anger, frustration and withdrawal. Our desire to protect ourselves from further hurt is driven by emotions such as betrayal, inferiority, insecurity, hopelessness, powerlessness and unworthiness. Ugh! When emotionally triggered by these experiences, our reactions, negative narratives, self-criticism and mistaken belief systems (the emotional version of pain and swelling) increase in frequency and intensity. Symptoms of anxiety and depression emerge, or become exacerbated, as the emotional inflammation serves as confirmation of our perceived inability to experience positive emotional health and happiness. We become trapped in our pain.
Like physiological inflammation, emotional inflammation becomes an extremely frustrating, hurtful and disappointing experience. Steps towards healing inflammation in the body include inducing the relaxation response in the parasympathetic nervous system, cleaning up our nutritional and lifestyle habits, moving our bodies and adding beneficial bacteria into the gut to create a balanced and harmonious microbiome. The same is true emotionally – we can take similar steps to reduce pain and swelling. A bit of pain, such as anger and hurt, let’s us know that something is out of balance and needs to change. Too much focus and attention on pain only contributes to severe inflammation of negative thoughts and emotions. Here’s how we can reverse the effects of emotional inflammation:
Self-care – Induce the relaxation response by adding any activity, such as a hot bath, yoga class or walk in nature, to your daily routine. Even 10-20 minutes daily can be enough.
Reflection – Instead of attaching to the perceived pain, try taking the stance of an objective observer who seeks to know the truth.
Empathy & Compassion – Think about, feel and understand the reaction (yours or theirs) based on their own subjective perception Instead of engaging with the emotional reaction with judgment and intense pain, try approaching the person, situation or yourself with a sympathetic desire towards the reduction of emotional pain and development of resilience.
Acceptance & Forgiveness – Of ourselves, others and the experience. Accepting our reaction to it and our desire to do things differently when we know better. Self-acceptance is the precursor to self-love. When we are able to forgive the person, situation and/or ourselves, we free ourselves from the attachment to the pain and empower ourselves to react differently moving forward.
Meaning-making – If our experiences are tests, finding the meaning within and learning the lessons that will help inform our future as we learn and grow.
Profound self-love – Criticism, judgment, guilt and shame have not helped to resolve anything before. Send love to yourself, others and the situation for a radical shift from inflammation to information. Ahh!
These positive coping techniques are the anti-inflammatory properties of the emotional relaxation response. Changing our thoughts, feelings and behaviour to positivity, optimism, hope, acceptance and love boosts immunity at the physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual levels. Will we continue to experience stress responses and immune reactions? Absolutely. Do we have to develop chronic emotional inflammation that causes distress, disturbance, disconnection and dis-ease? Absolutely not!