The Link Between Inflammation and Anxiety Explained

Published June 28, 2022
woman with neck pain

Do you experience aches and pains throughout your body? Those sensations may be due to inflammation. Anyone can experience inflammation, but some people are more likely to develop it than others. For example, people diagnosed with chronic inflammatory diseases experience inflammation at higher levels.

It's clear that a person's physical health can affect inflammation. But, what about a person's mental health? Research has shown that there may be a connection between mental health and inflammation, particularly for people with anxiety. In fact, many people experience symptoms of anxiety and inflammation simultaneously. But why does this connection occur?

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a response from the body's immune system whenever it senses a harmful invader or irritant. As part of the response, inflammatory cells are sent to the target area and you might see pus or redness form. For example, when you scrape your knee while in the garden, the area surrounding the wound can become red, tender, and swollen. That's due to inflammation. Inflammation is meant to protect the body from toxins (such as chemicals or radiation) or pathogens such as bacteria. It also helps fight off infection.

Causes

Inflammation is an adaptation to keep your body healthy. While most people experience inflammation caused by simple daily exposures to germs and bacteria, some people experience inflammation at higher rates. For example, people with Crohn's disease or psoriasis may experience constant inflammation. Many believe that inflammation may be influenced by a variety of factors, including:

  • Body weight
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Genetics
  • Illness
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Trauma

Symptoms

Inflammation, especially when it becomes chronic, can come with a variety of negative health effects. For example, it can cause people to feel exhausted or develop fevers. Symptoms of chronic inflammation can impact the way you live your life.

And there are other ways that inflammation works against the body. Inflammation can be triggered and can cause immune cells to fight against a person's own body by mistake. This is the case for many people who experience rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory diseases.

Inflammation can negatively affects the basal ganglia, a part of the brain associated with emotions and behaviors. Inflammatory processes have been associated with decreased mood and an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms. Other negative effects of inflammation include:

  • Behavior change
  • Changes in the reward center of the brain
  • Decreased motivation
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and cancer
  • Might ause people to be on edge or more reactive
  • Reduced motion and motor activity

Does Anxiety Cause Inflammation?

woman with stress and anxiety rubbing temples on head

Research has found that people with anxiety disorders have higher rates of inflammation. But is anxiety actually causing the health issue?

Studies have found that when a person is stressed, it creates an inflammation response in the body. Stress activates the immune system to high levels when there is not actually a threat in the body. Since people with anxiety often experience higher levels of stress, they also experience higher levels of inflammation.

On a cellular level, inflammation occurs due to increased circulation of inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are proteins that send signals to other cells. They play a role in the immune system, which is connected to the body's central nervous system (CNS). For example, they send messages throughout the body that alert the immune system that there is a potential danger. However, they can also send false signals when the body experiences stress, which can cause chronic pain and irritation.

Also when a person experiences anxiety symptoms, it raises the body's levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone. The various hormones that are released by the immune system during inflammation can irritate nerves. In addition, they can send signals to the brain that trigger the pain response. This is why people who experience inflammation often find it difficult and painful to move their muscles.

How to Reduce Inflammation and Anxiety

If you experience constant or painful inflammation, you may want to try different ways to help manage your condition. There are several things you can incorporate into your life to help reduce your symptoms.

Reduce Stress

man painting for stress relief

It may seem obvious, but a good way to reduce inflammation is to reduce your stress levels. There are plenty of ways to do this. For example, you can start to practice mindfulness or meditation. Or, if you want to try something a little different, you can start a new hobby. There are plenty of creative outlets that have been shown to reduce stress, such as:

Monitor Your Diet

Studies have found that sugar can cause inflammation in the body. Also, if you're a person with anxiety, consuming foods with added sugar may increase your symptoms. Don't worry, you don't have to cut out sugar altogether. However, you may want to monitor your diet a bit more closely. Research shows that healthy diets, such as those with fruits and vegetables, as well as foods that are high in fiber, protein, and fats can reduce inflammation and anxiety symptoms. Some foods you may want to incorporate are:

  • Fiber: Barley, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, blackberries, chia seeds
  • Plant-based fats: Avocados, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, fish, dark chocolate
  • Protein: Beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, rice, oats, broccoli

Get Some Exercise

Exercise has been shown to relieve stress and even help improve emotional regulation. You don't have to go to the gym or sweat excessively to experience the benefits of exercise. You can take a walk in the park, or garden outside. Try yoga or simple stretches. Find what feels good for you, and then stick to it.

Go Easy On Yourself

Inflammation and anxiety are linked. It can be difficult to manage symptoms of both conditions. And, if they occur at the same time, it becomes even more challenge. It's important to remember to go easy on yourself.

Take breaks and give yourself time to rest. If you experience increased levels of inflammation, it may be too painful for you to exercise that day. That's okay. You deserve some time to recover. There are many different ways to care for yourself and your body. Anxiety and inflammation may be powerful. But so are you.

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The Link Between Inflammation and Anxiety Explained