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Social Rejection Hurts Like Physical Pain

We have all been rejected at one time or another and we have all felt the pain associated with the rebuff. New research proves what we have all felt — that the feelings of social rejection “hurt” in the same manner as that of physical pain.

Researchers from the University of Michigan discovered that the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection.

“These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection hurts,” said University of Michigan social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break-up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain.

“But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought.”

Kross, an assistant professor at the U-M Department of Psychology, conducted the study with U-M colleague Marc Berman, Columbia University’s Walter Mischel and Edward Smith, also affiliated with the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and with Tor Wager of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

While earlier research has shown that the same brain regions support the emotionally distressing feelings that accompany the experience of both physical pain and social rejection, the current study is the first to establish that there is neural overlap between both of these experiences in brain regions activated when people experience painful sensations in their body.

These regions are the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula.

For the study, the researchers recruited 40 people who experienced an unwanted romantic break-up within the past six months, and who indicated that thinking about their break-up experience led them to feel intensely rejected. Each participant completed two tasks in the study—one related to their feelings of rejection and the other to sensations of physical pain.

During the rejection task, participants viewed either a photo of their ex-partner and thought about how they felt during their break-up experience or they viewed a photo of a friend and thought about a recent positive experience they had with that person.

During the physical pain task, a thermal stimulation device was attached to participants left forearm. On some trials the probe delivered a painful but tolerable stimulation akin to holding a very hot cup of coffee. On other trials it delivered non-painful, warm stimulation.

Participants performed all tasks while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans. The researchers conducted a series of analyses of the fMRI scans, focusing on the whole brain and on various regions of interest identified in earlier studies of physical pain.

They also compared the study’s results to a database of more than 500 previous fMRI studies of brain responses to physical pain, emotion, working memory, attention switching, long-term memory and interference resolution.

“We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion,” Kross said.

“These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.”

The team that performed the research hopes that the findings will offer new insight into how the experience of intense social loss may lead to various physical pain symptoms and disorders.

And they point out that the findings affirm the wisdom of cultures around the world that use the same language—words like “hurt” and “pain”—to describe the experience of both physical pain and social rejection.

Source: University of Michigan

Social Rejection Hurts Like Physical Pain

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Social Rejection Hurts Like Physical Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 17, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2011/03/29/social-rejection-hurts-like-physical-pain/24790.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.