A new research paper explores the relationship between physical and social pain finding that the connection is much stronger than imagined.
“Broken-hearted” isn’t just a metaphor — social pain and physical pain have a lot in common, said Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, the author of a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
“Rejection is such a powerful experience for people,” Eisenberger says. “If you ask people to think back about some of their earliest negative experiences, they will often be about rejection, about being picked last for a team or left out of some social group.”
In the paper, Eisenberger, associate professor of psychology at UCLA, discusses how people experiencing social rejection have similar brain activity to individuals living with physical pain.
Research has revealed that physical pain and social pain are processed in some of the same regions of the brain.
Physical pain has two aspects: the sensory experience of pain and the emotional component, in which your brain decides how negative or distressing the pain is.
This emotional component of physical pain is similar to the pain experienced as social pain. However, severe social rejection, like being dumped by a romantic partner, can also be processed in the part of your brain that handles the sensory component of pain.
Researchers discovered people who are more sensitive to physical pain are also more sensitive to social pain; they feel more rejected after completing a social exclusion task, in which the other two players in a computer version of catch refuse to share the ball.
One study even found that people who took Tylenol for three weeks reported less hurt feelings than people who took a placebo.
This finding surprised researchers. “It follows in a logical way from the argument that the physical and social pain systems overlap, but it’s still kind of hard to imagine,” said Eisenberger. “We take Tylenol for physical pain; it’s not supposed to work on social pain.”
Eisenberger does not recommend taking painkillers so you don’t feel social pain. She also believe there may be some long-term benefits to experiencing the pain of rejection.
“I think it’s probably there for a reason—to keep us connected to others,” she said. “If we’re constantly numbing the feeling of social rejection, are we going to be more likely do things that get us rejected, that alienate us?”
Obviously, there are times when the social pain may become too intense. And, according to the researchers, this is an area of future research that could investigate when or if the social pain should be treated.
The research validates the hurt feelings of people who have been socially rejected, Eisenberger said.
“We seem to hold physical pain in higher regard than social pain,” she says. While bystanders understand that physical pain hurts and can be debilitating, the same empathy doesn’t always extend to people feeling social pain.
“The research is sort of validating. It suggests that there is something real about this experience of pain that we have following rejection and exclusion.”