Emotion (Washington, D.C.)

Anxiety, not anger, induces inflammatory activity: An avoidance/approach model of immune system activation.

PMID 26053247


Psychological stressors reliably trigger systemic inflammatory activity as indexed by levels of proinflammatory cytokines. This experiment demonstrates that one's specific emotional reaction to a stressor may be a significant determinant of whether an inflammatory reaction occurs in response to that stressor. Based on extant correlational evidence and theory, a causal approach was used to determine whether an avoidant emotion (anxiety) triggers more inflammatory activity than an approach emotion (anger). In an experimental design (N = 40), a 3-way Emotion Condition × Time × Analyte interaction revealed that a writing-based anxiety induction, but not a writing-based anger induction, increased mean levels of interferon-γ (IFN- γ) and interleukin-1β (IL-1β), but not interleukin-6 (IL-6) in oral mucous, F(2, 54) = 4.64, p = .01, ηp(²) = .15. Further, self-reported state anxiety predicted elevated levels of proinflammatory cytokines, all ΔR(²) >.06, ps <.04, but self-reported state anger did not. These results constitute the first evidence to our knowledge that specific negative emotions can differentially cause inflammatory activity and support a theoretical model explaining these effects based on the avoidance or approach motivations associated with emotions.