Stressful Social Situations Could Make You Sick

Anxiety over things like public speaking can lead to asthma or heart disease

How do you respond to awkward social situations? Do you get anxious in front of large crowds or break a sweat when mingling with strangers? Fretting over social situations could make you sick, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People who are sensitive to getting snubbed show increased inflammatory activity in the body, says the study from UCLA. Inflammation is the immune system's natural response to potentially harmful situations. However, chronic inflammation can increase the risk of many diseases, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, cancer and depression.

Everyone experiences some social stress in life -- public speaking is one of the most common phobias -- but where some people will see it as a challenge, others consider it a real threat. Shy and socially anxious people may even feel afraid in everyday interactions, like making small talk with coworkers or riding the elevator with someone they don’t know. The more often people experience social stress, the more likely they are to have chronic inflammation, according to the study’s lead author George Slavich, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

For the study, Slavich and his team recruited 124 people and subjected them to two uncomfortable social situations. In one, the volunteers had to deliver an impromptu speech and perform complex math equations in front of a panel of judges. The second involved a game of catch between three people, where the volunteer was excluded halfway through to make him or her feel rejected. The research team monitored the volunteers’ brain activity via an MRI during the exercises. They also took mouth swab samples before and after the experiments to measure inflammatory markers. Those who showed greater activity in the areas of the brain associated with fear also had higher levels of inflammation.

According to neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, M.D., author of The Female Brain, we’re genetically programmed to be sensitive to rejection -- and some of us are more so than others. Our ancestors relied on their clan to protect them against danger, so being socially outcast was once a life or death situation. The researchers for this study speculate that could by why the threat of rejection triggers the immune system’s inflammation response -- the brain is anticipating physical harm. Short-term inflammation can help the body heal quicker, but over time, chronic inflammation can wear out the immune system and put people at greater risk of disease.

If you find yourself quaking from everyday interactions, the best thing you can do is challenge your beliefs, says Slavich. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that can happen to you if you’re rejected and can you live with that? The goal is to train your brain to recognize that these situations are not dangerous. That means putting yourself out on a limb by starting conversations, volunteering for presentations and doing whatever else scares you.

Public speaking, meeting new people -- what social situation makes you shudder? Chime in below.

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