Inflammation caused by stress

Exhausted person holding hands to head
Image: Colourbox

FAU researchers investigate the connection between stress and inflammation.

Constant stress can cause physical and psychological illness. The Chair for Health Psychology at FAU have investigated how stress and physical illnesses are connected.

In a study now underway, scientists led by Dr. Johanna Janson-Schmitt and Prof. Dr. Nicolas Rohleder are looking specifically at how and which inflammatory responses are triggered by stress. The goal is to better understand the process of stress responses in the body and thus develop techniques to reduce stress-related inflammation.

The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding the project with 500,000 euros over the next four years.

How are stress and inflammation related?

Prof. Dr. Nicolas Rohleder: In principle, we are interested in how psychological processes affect our physical wellbeing. When we are stressed, for example, our body releases more cortisol and adrenaline and our heart rate increases. But this isn’t enough to make us sick.

However, the brain can also induce inflammatory responses in stressful situations – simply turning them on and off – even though there is no actual focus of inflammation triggered by a virus or bacteria.

Dr. Johanna Janson-Schmitt: We have known for some time that frequent inflammation contributes to many diseases that are among the main causes of death in our society – such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. This is why we want to investigate the mechanisms that trigger stress in our body more closely. If we know how stress-induced inflammatory responses occur in the body, we can develop techniques to stop or reduce them. This also reduces the likelihood of later illnesses.

What does the study involve?

Dr. Johanna Janson-Schmitt: In our study, participants must take a stress test twice. After the first test, they receive two different instructions. One group are encouraged to brood and the other group train self-compassion. In the first scenario, we expect that participants will deal with stress less effectively and in the second scenario, participants should be able to deal with stress more effectively. The second stress test is held on the next day and we look at how differently the groups react to stress and whether this is linked to inflammatory reactions.

What does self-compassion mean?

Prof. Dr. Nicolas Rohleder: Self-compassion is a positive attitude towards oneself, it is a feeling of contentment, acceptance, and taking care of oneself – not to be confused with self-pity. Many people are reasonably good at comforting friends or family. But few people also give themselves encouragement and compassion when something hasn’t gone so well.

This self-compassion can be trained, and that’s what we do in the study with a short 10- to 15-minute tutorial. In pilot studies, we have already been able to show that increased self-compassion leads to perceiving stress as less bad. We want to find out whether this also reduces the inflammatory reaction.

Why are the other group encouraged to brood?

Dr. Johanna Janson- Schmitt: Brooding is almost the opposite of self-compassion. There are many people who tend to think a lot about what all went wrong in the past, and keep repeating these thoughts even though there is nothing they can do about it. Some people take this to the extreme and tend to have poor mental and physical health as a consequence.

In the study, we encourage participants to brood by asking them to think again about what happened in the stress test. As individuals can only perform poorly in a stress test, they have to deal with the fact that they didn’t do well again.

Prof. Dr. Nicolas Rohleder: Intentionally making people brood sounds strange at first. But if we also examine the negative influences, we can learn what makes reactions worse – what to avoid – and which behaviors we can encourage to reduce stress and inflammation. This helps us to discover tools and approaches that we can use later for therapeutic work.

We inform the subjects about the objectives of the study directly after the second stress test, so that no one goes home with a negative feeling from brooding.

More information on taking part in the study will be posted on the Chair of Health Psychology website in the coming weeks.

Further information

Prof. Dr. Nicolas Rohleder

Chair of Health Psychology

Phone: +49 9131 8520887

Dr. Johanna Janson-Schmitt

Phone: +49 9131 8564002

Chair of Health Psychology