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Is Your Social Life Exciting or Just Making You Sick?

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At one time or another we have all felt stress from dealing with others. It might be a job interview, meeting new people at parties, or anxiety over presenting your ideas at a conference or maybe fear of feeling rejected. Whatever uncomfortable social situation you might find yourself dealing with, chances are it’s negatively affecting your health.

UCLA researchers George Slavich and Shelley Taylor discovered the way your brain responds to social stressors influences your body’s immune system, the body’s defense against infection and disease. Individuals who exhibit greater neural sensitivity to social rejection also exhibit greater inflammatory activity when dealing with socially stressful situations.

The study, published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sought to examine how different people's brains respond to social stress and then relate those responses to human processes that affect human health and well-being.

While some people may adapt to social stress, or even be invigorated by it, others may become so overwhelmed that it leads to chronic inflammation that increases the risk of a variety of disorders, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and depression.

“It turns out there are important differences in how people interpret and respond to social situations,” said Slavich, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the study’s lead author.

To test the responses, researchers put 54 men and 74 women in awkward social situations. In round one, participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test, which involved preparing and delivering an impromptu speech and performing difficult mental math questions in front of a socially rejecting panel wearing white lab coats. Before and after the exercise, each participant’s mouth was swabbed to test for two key biomarkers of inflammatory activity.

In round two, 31 of the volunteers received MRI brain scans while playing a computerized game of catch with what they believed were two other real people, during which they experience social rejection.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.