Shame and guilt are two human emotions that can not only harm us psychologically, but also physically.  A study was conducted to determine if inducing self-blame would lead to increases in shame and guilt as well as increases in proinflammatory cytokine activity and cortisol.  Based on previous research and theory, it was hypothesized that induced shame would be specifically associated with elevations in proinflammatory cytokine activity.

Researchers asked a group of healthy participants were randomly assigned to write about traumatic experiences in which they blamed themselves or neutral experiences during three 20-minute experimental laboratory sessions over 1 week.  Tumor necrosis factor-α receptor levels (sTNFαRII), an indicator of proinflammatory cytokine activity, β2-microglobulin, cortisol (all obtained from oral fluids), and emotion were assessed prewriting and postwriting.

The study found participants in the self-blame condition showed an increase in shame and guilt as well as an increase in sTNFαRII activity when compared with those in the control condition. Cortisol and β2-microglobulin levels were unaffected by the procedures.  Those individuals in the self-blame condition reporting the greatest increases in shame in response to the task showed the greatest elevations in proinflammatory cytokine activity, while levels of guilt and general negative emotion were unrelated to cytokine changes.

Tumor necrosis factor is a cell signaling protein (cytokine) involved in inflammation and is one of the cytokines that make up the acute phase reaction.  It is produced primarily by activated white blood cells (known as macrophages).

It’s primary role is in the regulation of immune cells.  It can induce fever, cell death, inflammation and inhibit viral replication, inhibit tumor cell growth.

These data suggest that inducing self-related emotions can cause changes in inflammatory products, and that shame may have specific immunological correlates.