Scientists at UCLA recruited 124 healthy young adults to participate in a lab-based test aimed at determining whether social stress such as rejection causes inflammation, which can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health.
Participants were put through stressful tests that were designed to make them feel rejected. Measurements of inflammatory markers were performed on samples of oral fluids taken before and after the tests.
Rejection and Inflammation
First, the young people were told to enter a room, where they faced people wearing white coats to make them look smart and official, researcher George M. Slavich, PhD, a UCLA clinical psychologist, tells WebMD.
Then they were told to prepare and make a 5-minute speech on why they’d make a good administrative assistant, while standing in front of the “raters,” who were holding clipboards to look even more official and intimidating.
Then the participants were told to count backward by sevens from 2,935, and that if they goofed, they’d have to start over, counting backward by 13, “while those watching acted as if they were exasperated, asking them to go more quickly,” Slavich tells WebMD.
Not surprisingly, the inflammatory biological markers in oral fluids increased dramatically after the stressful tests.
More Stressed, More Inflammation
Later, 31 of the same participants took part in a computerized ball-tossing game while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, programmed to light up brain regions that showed stress.
The volunteers were made to feel as if they were goofing up and that imaginary people they thought were playing with them suddenly stopped without reason.
Brain regions associated with fear, stress, and rejection lit up.
“People who showed the greatest neural responses to being excluded during [the game] also had shown the greatest increase in inflammatory activity during the earlier public speaking task,” he says. “So those individuals who were most sensitive to social rejection, at least neurally speaking, showed the greatest biological responses to that acute stressor of public speaking,” Slavich tells WebMD.
The experiments were meant to help scientists work with people who feel rejected and teach them to respond appropriately, Slavich says.
Not thinking the worst, he suggests, may be best for your health.