Are people who have strong emotional reactions to stress more susceptible to inflammatory diseases—including heart disease—if stress is a frequent occurrence? A study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh suggests the answer is yes.
“[Subjects] who reported high levels of anger and anxiety after performing a laboratory-based stress task showed greater increases in a marker of inflammation than those who remained relatively calm,” said Judith Carroll, PhD, lead investigator. “This could explain why some people with high levels of stress experience chronic health problems.”
Investigators enrolled 102 relatively healthy male and female subjects (mean age 50 years). All participants were required to perform “a simulated public speaking task, consisting of 2 minutes of preparation for a speech defending themselves against an alleged transgression (shoplifting or traffic violation), followed by 3 minutes of videotaped speech delivery.” Data included measures of affective state and serum levels of proinflammatory markers at the end of a baseline 30-minute resting period, after the 5-minute public speaking task and again after a 30-minute recovery period. Data analysis showed that subjects with the largest increases in proinflammatory markers were the ones who displayed the strongest emotional reactions—anger and anxiety—to the speaking task.
Anna Marsland, PhD, associate professor of psychology and nursing at the University of Pittsburgh and study author, said, “Our results raise the possibility that individuals who become angry or anxious when confronting relatively minor challenges in their lives are prone to increases in inflammation. Over time, this may render these emotionally reactive individuals more vulnerable to inflammatory disease, such as cardiovascular disease,” she said.
The study appeared in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2011; 25, 232–38).