- Traumatic experiences can cause increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines.
- Inflammation can worsen the symptoms of many illnesses.
- Positive emotions, like awe and wonder, can help the body heal.
Years ago, my husband and I went hiking with our 5-month-old son asleep in a backpack. As we came around a narrow part of the trail, we heard a waterfall rush and felt the quickening air and cooling temperature. Our son woke up and excitedly exclaimed, "Ooh ooh!" his mouth and eyes wide open with wonder. The three of us shared a thrilling moment of awe, gazing at this powerful display of natural beauty. It may come as a surprise, but experiences of awe and wonder can help us heal from stress and trauma.
Trauma and Inflammation
Traumatic experiences, such as violence, abandonment, or injury, can impact the brain and body in important ways. The negative emotions associated with trauma, (shame, sadness, anxiety, stress), cause increases in proinflammatory cytokines. Proinflammatory cytokines can cause neuroinflammation which contributes to depression. Inflammation can worsen the symptoms of many illnesses including allergic, autoimmune, rheumatologic, and cardiovascular diseases. It also exacerbates symptoms of infectious diseases like bacterial and viral infections.
The good news is that the body produces anti-inflammatory cytokines to help us restore balance. We can help the body achieve balance by cultivating the positive emotion of awe. Awe and wonder appear to lower inflammation and promote better health and immune system functioning. Jennifer Stellar from the University of Toronto found lower levels of inflammatory cytokines in those subjects who reported more experiences of awe, wonder, and amazement (Stellar, et al. 2015).
The Benefits of Awe and Wonder
Awe inspires feelings of social connection (Bai, et al. 2017). For example, my husband and I experienced awe, wonder, and social connection at a concert by Sir Paul McCartney. At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with the full moon rising behind the stage, the 72-year-old McCartney hit all the high notes and rocked out like a 25-year-old to a multi-generational audience of loving fans.
At the end of the concert, the couple next to us, strangers, but fellow fans, embraced us, and we wished one another well. We felt a collective joy, moved by the infectious energy of a shared musical experience. It made us feel close and connected.
Awe makes us kinder and less self-centered. Social psychology researchers found that those with a higher capacity for awe tend to behave more generously toward others. They discovered that many types of experiences of awe and wonder reduce self-centeredness and promote kindness and more pro-social behaviors. We transcend ourselves and view the world and the people around us with mysterious fascination when we experience awe and wonder (Piff, et al. 2015).
Awe helps us see things from a new perspective. It motivates us to stop, think, pay attention to details, and remain open to new information (Shiota, et al. 2017). Albert Einstein said, "He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed." He referred to awe as "the source of all true art and science."
Noticing nature in your neighborhood can improve your mood, lower inflammation in your body, and engender a feeling of warm connection with your environment. You might feel awe-inspired witnessing a great Olympic athlete complete a record-breaking swim, run, jump, or inspiring gymnastics routine.
Everyday experiences open us to opportunities for awe and wonder. Whenever I fly on an airplane, I think about the years of dreaming, attempts, and failures, that went into this machine that takes us into the sky at high speeds. It's wondrous.
Five Ways to Invigorate Awe
Here are five ways that you can open yourself to awe and wonder in your everyday life:
Sensing walk: Take a slow walk in a park, canyon, or near a lake, ocean, or another place of natural diversity. Put away your phone and pay attention to what your body senses. Notice the sound of crunching leaves under your feet—bird song, the wind through the trees, the lapping of water. Notice the temperature and how light plays on the landscape. Slowly examine the trees, shrubs, flowers, insects, and any other life you see. Notice the texture and colors of a rock, the sand, clay soil, or the feel of a leaf or pinecone. Smell the bark of a tree, a leaf, a flower, the air. Let yourself notice each sensation as if for the first time.
Visit a local art museum, aquarium, planetarium, or zoo. Let your eyes linger on anything you find interesting, beautiful, inspiring, or unique. Observe how you feel inside as you look at something new and different. Let yourself experience your emotions without judging them.
Listen to music that pleases, amazes, or inspires you. Let yourself fully attend to the music without any other distraction. Open yourself to whatever the music feels like in your body. Write about how the music moves you.
Drive to the desert or an area with little light pollution and gaze up at the night sky. Watch a lunar eclipse or meteor shower. Gaze at planets through a telescope. Try to imagine the expanding vastness of the universe you inhabit.
Go to a local lake, creek, or estuary and observe the tiny creatures that live there. Observe spiders spinning webs, fireflies, pollywogs, and insects as they occupy and play their unique part in the natural order.
After a traumatic event, you might feel like isolating from others. It might feel safer to retreat from the activities you used to enjoy. In those moments, give yourself permission to gaze up at the night sky, contemplate the vast universe, and wonder. It might open your mind and heart to new experiences that can heal.
Stellar JE, et al. Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion. 2015.
Bai, Y. et al. Awe, the Diminished Self, and Collective Engagement: Universals and Cultural Variations in the Small Self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2017. 113(2). 185-209. doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000087.
Piff, Paul K. et al. Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2015. 108(6). 883-899. doi:10.1037/pspi0000018.
Shiota, Michelle, et al. Transcending the Self: Awe, Elevation, and Inspiration. Tugade, M. M.; Shiota, M. N.; Kirby, L. D. The Handbook of Positive Emotions. 2017. doi:10.31234/osf.io/hkswj. New York: Guilford Press.