Emotional Inflammation: How it Harms Mental Health

Stacey Colino, the author of Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times, written with Lise Van Susteren, M.D., joined The Plum for a discussion about a psychological phenomenon that is impacting just about all of us and, more important, what can be done about it.

By Didi Gluck
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The Plum: What Exactly is Emotional Inflammation?

Stacey Colino: Emotional inflammation refers to the psychological and emotional state of constantly being on edge, angst-ridden, hyper-reactive or hyper-vigilant, full of dread, or generally filled with a WTF!!! feeling about what’s happening in the world. But it does have physiological ripple effects because when you have cortisol coursing through your body 24/7, there’s an inflammatory cascade, where your blood flow and blood pressure increase, your muscles tense up, your heart rate and breathing rate shoot up, and so on. These changes can lead to a whole bunch of unpleasant physiological changes including trouble sleeping, an amplified pain response, problems with concentration or focus, and maybe even flare-ups in stress-related symptoms like digestive problems, headaches, and the like.

The Plum: How is it different from the daily stressors that impact mental health?

SC: With situational stress, your body’s fight-or-flight response usually settles down after the source of stress has calmed down. With emotional inflammation, that doesn’t happen. You end up in a continuous state of anxiety or high alert. 

The Plum: How do you know if you have Emotional Inflammation?

SC: The symptoms are so individualized, and so are the triggers. In fact, people have different reactor types or combinations of types. Some people have an anxious, worried, or fearful form of emotional inflammation, while others have a frantic, hyperreactive form or one that’s marked by irritation, maybe even anger and/or indignation; still others have a tendency to freeze, detach, withdraw, zone out, or numb themselves. Complicating matters, many of us have hybrid forms of emotional inflammation based on our own unique blend of reactions to the chaos and crises in our midst, our own deeply held fears and worries, and our thinking styles. There’s a quiz in our book that will help people identify their personal reaction styles.  

READ MORE: Are you more stressed than normal? Learn how anxiety and stress can be contagious (and how to protect yourself from them).

The Plum: Is there anyone who doesn't suffer from emotional inflammation? How do you integrate triggering factors into a balanced life?

SC: Sadly, I think it’s a really common — even normal or appropriate — response to the sh*tshow we’ve been living with in recent years, given the state of the planet, politics, mass shootings, sexual misconduct scandals, and all the other modern afflictions in our world. Sure, if you live in a cabin in the woods and you avoid all media exposure, you could avoid emotional inflammation. But that’s not realistic or even appealing to many of us. So, yes, there will always be triggers, and the key is to be able to identify the ones that are likely to elicit reactions from you, recognize how they affect you, then find ways to restore your emotional equilibrium.   

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With situational stress, your body settles down after the source of stress has calmed down. With emotional inflammation, you end up in a continuous state of anxiety or high alert. 

Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times

The Plum: How do you manage Emotional Inflammation to Improve Your Mental Wellness?

SC: This is the million-dollar question! And it can be done, but it takes a concerted effort. As I mentioned, recognizing your triggers and how you’re feeling is the place to start. It’s not enough to say “I’m stressed”; we all need to dig deeper to develop emotional granularity — that is, being able to distinguish between, say, feeling anxious and fearful, or angry and annoyed, and so on — and to pinpoint how those feelings affect us. Because the best way to deal with anxiety, for example, may be different from how to tamp down your fears. 

But there are things that everyone with EI should be doing. This includes: Honoring your circadian rhythms by establishing a consistent bedtime and awakening time that allows you to get your optimal amount of sleep each night, and exposing yourself to bright, natural light to reset your internal clock in the morning; using healthy strategies to control your thoughts (to reality-check distorted thoughts and correct them, avoid ruminating about your fears or problems, and control the flow of information in your life by setting limits on your media exposure); taking care of your gut microbiome, which can calm you from the inside out; calibrating your breathing so you get the right flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out; getting regular shots of oxytocin from hugs with your loved ones or by cuddling with your pets; spending time in nature and tuning into the power of awe by gazing at the stars (awe helps transport you out of your worries and makes you feel a part of something larger than yourself); and becoming an upstander or agent of change instead of just watching things that seem wrong or harmful happen.   

The Plum: What’s the Relationship Between Mindfulness and Mental Health? What about nutrition?

SC: Mindfulness is huge for EI. It’s so important to recognize how you’re feeling and accept it without judging those feelings. But you don’t have to meditate — if you don’t want to — to reap these benefits. It’s really more about adopting a mindful mindset.

In terms of eating and drinking, it’s best to stick with anti-inflammatory foods and beverages (such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, fatty fish, tea, ginger, cinnamon, and other herbs and spices), as well as probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria or yeasts found in certain foods (like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha) and prebiotics (in lentils, beans, garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, apples, and savoy cabbage), which essentially feed probiotics in your body. These foods can help calm the fires of inflammation inside you.  

Plum: Do you think Coronavirus is Making Emotional Inflammation Better or Worse?

SC: That’s an interesting question and I think the effect is going both ways, depending on the individual. My teenage son has reached a new level of “chill” because there’s much less work involved with online learning, he can sleep when and as long as he wants to, and he doesn’t have to deal with social B.S. at school. But I know of other teens who have really been struggling with high anxiety and depression during the pandemic and have had to go on or switch antidepressants, or ended up in the ER with a panic attack, thinking it was a heart attack. Again, the response is very individual. 

For adults, I think there’s a lot of anxiety about the future after the coronavirus, given that the economy is in free-fall mode and so many businesses are struggling or laying off people or reducing their pay. Right now, it’s impossible to know what “the other side” will look like.   

The Plum: How have you and Dr. Van Susteren been eliminating Emotional Inflammation from your lives?

SC: Interestingly, Lise has the more manic or frantic style of reactivity, whereas mine is more of a combination of nervous and angry. Lise has found tremendous relief by tuning into nature, spending time outdoors, gazing at the night sky and forms of wildlife that are coming out even in suburbs, and incorporating colors and sounds from nature into her home environment. For me, using healthy thought control has been especially helpful: I’ve become quite adept at talking myself down from an anxious state (I will literally say to myself “I don’t need to worry about this right now; I’m on a thought vacation!”), limiting my media exposure, avoiding catastrophic thinking, and shifting my focus toward what I’m grateful for when I feel anxious or overwhelmed. Interestingly, we have both started sleeping with apps that play sounds from nature — Lise uses one that plays the sounds of a rainstorm, while my husband and I use one that plays the sound of gentle waves. This has helped us sleep better, which helps relieve EI. 

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LISE VAN SUSTEREN, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice and a climate activist in Washington, DC. She is a go-to commentator for CNN, NBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, and other media outlets. 

STACEY COLINO is an award-winning writer, specializing in health and psychology, and a certified health coach. Her work appears in U.S. News & World ReportPreventionGood HousekeepingParade, and Parents

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