How Social Rejection Causes Stress and Inflammation

And why food is not the best prevention.

If you Google the word inflammation, there are over 200 million results. Everyone is talking about it. It’s used in a multitude of conversations about health, diet, exercise, and much more.

The roots of inflammation aren’t commonly known. It’s usually thought of as swelling or injury, but inflammation, in a broader sense, refers to our body’s inflammatory response — which is a protective response to a threat, like sneezing in a friend’s room and discovering there’s a shy cat you’re allergic too.

If this response happens repeatedly over time, chronic health conditions can occur. Inflammation even has a possible link to Alzheimer’s.

While many of the Google results point to inflammation prevention through diet and weight, the conversation is neglecting a different, primary inflammatory factor in most of our lives: stress.

Another word for chronic stress is allostatic load — when stress becomes so chronic and problematic that it’s difficult for all the different body responses to return to a baseline.

On a normal timeline, after a stressor occurs, our inflammatory response jumps into action and we enter allostasis. Our sympathetic nervous system turns on. This is our fight-or-flight response.

Like what would happen if we’re being chased by a tiger or someone with a knife — our brain immediately makes physical choices for us with the end result of keeping us alive.

When we’re facing daily fight-or-flight responses and feeling constantly stressed, we’re no longer leaving allostasis and returning to homeostasis. Our brain starts believing we’re constantly running from that tiger or that every person we see potentially has a knife, even if it’s day-to-day stressors or small traumas — like microaggressions or a high-stress job.

This constant nervous system activation leads to chronic inflammation. A chronic inflammatory response leads to an increased risk of many diseases, from metabolic disease to even death.

Another underrated cause of stress? Social rejection

Most everyone can name their general stressors in life. The examples that often come to mind are things like work stress, family stress, and feeling stressed out — all fairly vague comments about the general state of things that seem to have obvious sources.

However, there are other common things — things that are less thought of as reasons to enter into this fight-or-flight response that we might not categorize as stress, like social rejection.

Social rejection is something everyone has experienced, and it causes pain every time. Studies show that social rejection lights up the same parts of our brain as physical pain and trauma.

A couple of social rejections in a lifetime is normal and the brain can continue to rationalize those events, but when those rejections become frequent, our brain develops a trauma response to the perception of rejection.

When someone becomes expectant of social rejection, the trauma response can become chronic. Fight-or-flight becomes habitual with what can be every day social interactions. As a result, a person’s health can start to decline.

Rejection — or perceived rejection — can manifest in many ways. In some cases, memories of social rejection can hold the same pain and trauma response that the initial rejection held, creating damage over and over again.

But the underlying theme is feeling a lack of belonging. To not be accepted for your true, authentic self can be traumatic.

Social connection is integral to the human experience, and there are so many things that mainstream culture rejects us for.

People are rejected for everything from their gender, to their sexuality, weight, skin color, religious beliefs, and more. All of these things cause us to feel like we don’t belong — to feel socially rejected. And, as a result, we experience a fight-or-flight response chronically, which in part, leads to increased risk of disease.

Food can’t prevent rejection-induced stress

Food, and by association body weight, is often immediately connected to inflammatory responses. However, stress is likely to cause a change in the way we make choices.

Some studies suggest that, instead of just diet or behavior, the link between stress and health behaviors should be examined for further evidence.

Because even though food and health behaviors may have an impact on inflammation, the evidence isn’t well-established and likely doesn’t apply to those with low socioeconomic status.

That is, even if people who are living below the poverty line are able to follow dietary recommendations to improve their health, living with the stress that poverty creates is enough to negate the benefits of food changes.

Take food insecurity for example. This occurs when there’s no guarantee of adequate nutrition and can result in many different survival behaviors that stick around for generations.

The trauma around food can also manifest in behaviors like food hoarding and feelings of scarcity around food. It can be passed down by habits or tricks such as choosing foods with the most calories for cost or finding easily available food.

What also gets passed down for generations to come, as result of low-income living, is the increased risk of chronic disease, like how Native American populations have the greatest risk for type 2 diabetes.

There’s an inherent privilege that a person or family needs to have the time (getting to a specific food location or cooking meals from scratch every night) and money (“healthier” food often costs more per calorie) to access these resources.

In short, an anti-inflammatory diet may be helpful up to a point, but even a dietary change alone can be difficult and stressful. When stressors like socioeconomic status become too influential, food won’t provide enough protection.

Inflammation prevention is a social justice issue

The obsession with inflammation and dietary changes often misses the very preventable cause of inflammation and disease-stress, which can result from obvious and universal, yet underestimated, moments like social rejection.

The human experience begs for belonging and for connection — for a place to be authentic and safe in that authenticity.

By society denying that need through exclusion like medical stigma due to size, social exile due to gender identity, sexual orientation, or race, or bullying among many others, it’s putting us at an increased risk for stress and inflammation.

If the focus of our prevention efforts can be turned away from food and toward behaviors that we can control, and if we can push for society to reduce the risk of the social determinants of health, like socioeconomic status, the risks of inflammation might be minimized.

And society itself just might hold the key to preventing inflammation and creating healthier generations — by beginning to create inclusive spaces, working to break down systemic barriers like racism, sexism, transphobia, fatphobia, and others, and educating ourselves on marginalized groups and how they suffer.

A community where anyone and everyone can feel like they belong, and people aren’t “othered” for being themselves, is an environment that’s less likely to breed chronic disease that’s caused by stress and inflammation.

Amee Severson is a registered dietitian whose work focuses on body positivity, fat acceptance, and intuitive eating through a social justice lens. As the owner of Prosper Nutrition and Wellness, Amee creates a space for managing disordered eating from a weight-neutral standpoint. Learn more and inquire about services at her website,

Read more on: mental