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Negative Moods May Trigger Inflammation

You don't have to be happy all the time, but negative moods can be inflammatory.

Source: alphaspirit/Shutterstock

Are you saying "Ho ho ho!" or "Bah, humbug!" more this holiday season? Pretending to be jolly when you’re in a foul mood can seem phony, and sometimes there's no reason for a good mood. That said, negative affectivity may trigger more inflammatory cytokines than "positive affectivity."

New research (Graham-Engeland et al., 2018) has identified a correlation between negative moods and inflammation. This paper, “Negative and Positive Affect as Predictors of Inflammation: Timing Matters,” was recently published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

For this study, the researchers had participants self-assess positive or negative moods throughout the day using a questionnaire. They also took blood samples throughout the day to measure fluctuating concentrations of C-reactive protein (CRP) and seven peripheral inflammatory cytokines (IL-1β, IL-6, TNF-α, IL-8, IL-4, IL-10, and IFN-γ).

This Penn State psychophysiology-based research team was led by principal investigator Jennifer Graham-Engeland. Notably, the researchers found that positive moods are associated with less inflammation in some people, whereas negative moods — such as feeling angry, grumpy, or gloomy — are associated with higher levels of inflammation across the board.

Inflammation and Immune Response Are Intertwined

These findings add to previous research linking depression and hostility with higher inflammation. According to the researchers, this is the first study to identify a correlation between negative affect and higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers. Countless other studies have found a correlation between chronic inflammation and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and diabetes.

The design of this study is unique, because researchers used questionnaires which asked participants to recall their feelings over a period of time, and they also asked participants how they were feeling in the moment. These self-assessments were then compared to blood work samples that matched each time-date stamp in the questionnaire.

The Penn State researchers are quick to point out that this study has some limitations, such as its cross-sectional design and self-reported questionnaires. Before drawing firm conclusions on these initial findings, the authors warn that more research is needed. Hopefully, these preliminary findings will inspire more clinical research that pinpoints targeted ways that individuals can learn to avoid negative moods from minute-to-minute, day-to-day, and across a lifespan.

 Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851
As an ultra-marathon runner, Christopher Bergland learned how to avoid negative moods while competing under adverse racing conditions. In this photo, he is running 135-miles nonstop through Death Valley in July where temperatures can reach 130-degrees Fahrenheit.
Source: Courtesy of Kiehl's Since 1851

Anecdotally, the findings of this study resonate with me as an ultra-endurance athlete. Early in my long-distance running career, it became clear that negative moods create physiological changes in my body which cause me to run slower. Because I was often running 100+ miles at a stretch in grueling conditions (such as 130-degree temperatures in Death Valley), there was a lot of time to play around with fine-tuning my emotion regulation to avoid a negative affect. Through trial-and-error, I was able to identify a sweet spot of “pragmatic optimism” that felt authentic and boosted my mental toughness.

For example, if my feet were covered in blisters, and I still had a couple marathons to run, I wouldn’t pretend that everything was hunky-dory if it actually sucked. But I also wouldn’t allow myself to dwell on negativity or physical pain. Dialing into the sweet spot between being a hopeless pessimist or a delusional optimist — in a way that feels genuine and wholehearted — can be tricky.

Ultimately, although it's painfully cliché, I believe that pragmatic optimism boils down to making a conscious decision to always view the proverbial glass as half-full. Again, this doesn't mean you have to be a phony, Styrofoam Pollyanna. But even in the direst situation, you can make an effort to look on the bright side and find a tiny sliver of silver lining.

Along this same line, when I was at the top of my game, I knew that I didn’t necessarily need to feel blissful or ecstatic to move swiftly and achieve peak performance. However, on the flip side, the millisecond I allowed a negative affect to take hold of my mind, I could instantaneously feel a tectonic shift inside my body that made it impossible to run really fast. The moment this phenomenon occurred, I knew there was no way I was going to win the race.

After reading the latest findings from the Penn State College of Health and Human Development, I have a hunch that what I was experiencing as an athlete was the mind-body link between negative moods and inflammation. Inflammatory cytokines hinder peak athletic performance.

Based on my road-tested, anecdotal experience and the latest empirical evidence by Graham-Engeland et al., it makes sense that positive moods don’t necessarily reduce inflammation. I'd make an educated guess that we don't have to be happy all the time to prevent inflammatory cytokines from skyrocketing. The key in both sport and life seems to be staying out of the "no man's land" of all-consuming negative moods. This is a generous psychobiological design. Avoiding a negative affect feels more sustainable than trying to pretend you're happy all the time.

As a real-time example, if I imagine myself as the character wearing a suit in the stock photo at the top of this page, I can visualize the sweet spot between a positive and negative affect. As you can see, he's holding an alter-ego curled up in the fetal position under a frowning rain cloud with a lightning bolt in his right hand; and another alter-ego jumping for joy under a bright, sunny sky in his left hand. The "Pragmatic Optimist" balances positive and negative affect and finds a sweet spot that is smack-dab in the middle between these two extremes. This state of mind would be marked by his hands being perfectly level against the gray background.

In my opinion, the main takeaway of this research is that in order to keep your inflammatory cytokines in check, you don’t have to maintain a gleeful mood 24/7, but you should make a consistent and concerted effort to minimize the amount of time you spend in a negative mood throughout the day.

"We hope that this research will prompt investigators to include momentary measures of stress and affect in research examining inflammation, to replicate the current findings and help characterize the mechanisms underlying associations between affect and inflammation," Jennifer Graham-Engeland said in a statement. "Because affect is modifiable, we are excited about these findings and hope that they will spur additional research to understand the connection between affect and inflammation, which in turn may promote novel psychosocial interventions that promote health broadly and help break a cycle that can lead to chronic inflammation, disability, and disease."


Jennifer E. Graham-Engeland, Nancy L. Sina, Joshua M.Smyth, Dusti R.Jones, Erik L. Knight, Martin J. Sliwinski, David M. Almeida, Mindy J. Katz, Richard B.Lipton, Christopher G. Engeland. "Negative and Positive Affect as Predictors of Inflammation: Timing Matters." Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (First published online: September 11, 2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2018.09.011

David N. Miller. (2011) "Positive Affect." In: Goldstein S., Naglieri J.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer, Boston, MA. DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_2193

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