Bullying Can Cause Inflammation in the Body and Brain
Three steps to reduce inflammation and balance your body budget.
Posted September 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- The brain's management of the body's resources can become imbalanced by bullying and abuse.
- When the brain's predictions about the body's needs are off balance, it can cause inflammation.
- Inflammation can be extremely harmful for the health of the body and the brain.
- Research shows mindfulness, aerobic exercise, and emotional regulation can reduce harmful inflammation.
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett describes the brain’s important role in managing the “body budget.” You can invest in the body budget with assets like sleep, food, and connecting with others. You can withdraw from the body budget’s resources by exercising, concentrating, and being disconnected from others.
The body budget fluctuates throughout each day as the brain anticipates and responds to the body’s needs. It manages bodily resources like salt, water, oxygen, and glucose. The body budget can tip out of balance when the brain anticipates incorrectly, which happens frequently, and just as frequently the balance is restored.
The onset of inflammation
Inflammation happens when the body budget tips out of balance in a prolonged, entrenched, chronic way.
Barrett uses the example of seeing an authority figure approach like a “coach or teacher walking toward you,” which the brain may predict unnecessarily as an event requiring fuel for the body as it activates survival circuits. This causes a short-term imbalance if the teacher or coach is empathic and compassionate. This kind of short-term withdrawal of the body’s resources can be replenished with eating and sleeping.
However, if a teacher or coach used bullying behaviours in the past, the brain may learn to anticipate authority figures as aggressive, requiring a lot of resources from the body budget from repeatedly activating the survival circuits. A child who is bullied by peers in school or sports may develop a brain that anticipates social interactions as aggressive which further depletes their body budget, rather than replenishes it. These brains are now predicting incorrectly.
They are anticipating harm, drawing on the body’s budget to prepare, when the threat doesn’t exist. These brains may associate school and sports, even without an authority figure or peer present, as threatening, thus activating survival circuits and requiring excessive body resources. An example of a brain making errors with the body budget would be an eating disorder. The brain keeps drawing on the body's resources, faced with a toxic environment, which puts the body constantly on the hunt for fuel to replenish its diminished stores.
As Barrett describes the situation: “Your brain mispredicts that your body needs energy over and over and over, driving your budget into the red.” She says that chronic “misbudgeting,” think chronic stress, is “devastating to your health.” If you are being bullied or abused, it’s likely that your body budget is chronically unbalanced. The brain is frequently predicting that you need more energy to cope with the onslaught than your body actually requires. Even when the bullying or abuse is in the past, the brain might continue to believe the threat exists.
If you are daily coming into contact with a boss, a teacher, a coach, or even a colleague or peer who bullies you, your brain predicts that the situation is one of fight, flight, or freeze and this causes your body to release the stress hormone cortisol more often and in greater amounts than you need. This is a prolonged case of the body budget being out of balance.
In society today, rarely can you fight the one bullying or abusing you; you could run away from a peer, but it’s very difficult to take flight from an authority figure; you could freeze, but that doesn’t mean they won’t notice you. When you have a buildup of cortisol in your body from the chronic stress of bullying and abuse, coupled with the stress response to fight, flight, or freeze, inflammation flares up. This inflammation can drain your energy, cause a fever, and make you susceptible to viruses.
How does inflammation affect your body and brain?
The loss of energy leads to even more issues with your body budget because your brain interprets your fatigue, caused by the inflammation, to be a further sign of your limited energy resources. You become inactive to preserve what’s left of your depleted self. This can negatively impact eating, sleeping, and exercising. This puts your body budget even more out of balance. You may gain weight which makes the inflammation worse intensifying the whole vicious cycle.
Now, you don’t feel like connecting with people so you deprive yourself of the kinds of relationships that help balance the body budget. Just as bullying and abuse can cause chronic stress and body budget imbalance, resulting in inflammation, empathy and compassion can reduce stress and support the balancing of the body budget, reducing inflammation. People with fewer social connections suffer higher levels of inflammation and may become ill more often.
Even worse, inflammation, specifically the proteins “proinflammatory cytokines” can move from the body into the brain. Inflammation can reshape the brain, interfere with neural connections, and kill brain cells. It can negatively impact your ability to focus and remember. It further erodes the brain’s ability to correctly predict the needs of the body budget.
How to reduce inflammation
Here are three steps to extinguish inflammation that is negatively affecting your body and brain.
- Extensive research documents the repairing and restoring power of mindfulness. When you close your eyes, breathe slowly and purposefully. Focus on your breath and being in the present. Your body is telling your brain it’s safe and there’s no need to draw on the body budget. You build up reserves and assets when you take time to activate your parasympathetic system to calm down the survival circuits designed for fight, flight, and freeze. This reduces inflammation as the brain and body come back into balance.
- Extensive research documents the repairing and restoring power of aerobic exercise. Physical movement prevents the harmful effects of stress and helps the body and brain repair when stress has occurred. While inflammation harms the brain, aerobic exercise releases BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) that strengthens neural connections and fuels the birth of new brain cells.
- Extensive research documents your ability to regulate your emotional response to situations. If your brain has been wired to anticipate and predict threat and harm, you need to work hard to rewire it. This can be done with a mental health practitioner, a team of supporters, or even on your own. Learning to disconnect your negative experiences in the past with positive opportunities presenting themselves in the present means deconstructing your emotional reaction and constructing a new one. For instance, you might see a boss, teacher, or coach approach you and predict “anxiety.” Think up more nuanced, potentially more accurate terms such as “nervousness, excitement, anticipation.” Experiencing the present in a mindful, proactive, responsive way helps balance the body budget and keeps inflammation at bay.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Barrett, L. (2017). How Emotions Are Made. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.