Mindfulness can help ease the pain of social rejection, according to a new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings and thoughts.
“Social rejection can have a number of negative outcomes both for the rejected person’s own health and well-being, as well as their interpersonal relationships,” said lead author Alexandra Martelli, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
“Therefore it is critical that researchers find adaptive ways at responding to social rejection, and mindfulness may be one effective emotion regulation strategy.”
Researchers from VCU, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Kentucky conducted the study to determine whether mindfulness could help buffer against the distress and pain of social rejection.
For the study, 40 undergraduate students self-reported their levels of mindfulness, and then were placed in an fMRI scanner. The researchers observed the participants’ brain activity as they played a virtual ball-tossing game with what they believed to be two other partners.
Toward the end of the game, the participants stopped receiving any ball tosses from the other players, mimicking the conditions of social rejection. Then the participants were interviewed about how distressed they were during the game. The findings show that participants with higher levels of mindfulness reported less distress from being excluded.
The correlation between mindfulness and reduced social distress also was seen in the brain imaging, as researchers found there was less activation in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with the inhibitory regulation of both physical and social forms of pain.
The researchers also observed the communication between the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and other brain areas during social rejection. They discovered that the more mindful participants exhibited less functional connectivity between the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and two brain regions that help generate the experience of social distress, the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
The research lab, led by David Chester, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and a co-author on the study, seeks to understand why people try to harm one another after experiences such as rejection.
“Mindfulness has beneficial effects for many psychological and behavioral maladies,” Chester said. “Yet in many ways, our understanding of how mindfulness achieves these helpful outcomes is not fully understood. Our findings help shed light on the underlying biological and psychological mechanisms through which mindfulness helps people cope with distressing social experiences, such as rejection and exclusion.”
Specifically, he said, the study suggests that mindful individuals are not as distressed by social rejection and that mindful individuals appear to successfully regulate such distressing emotions by not using effortful, inhibitory processes that suppress their feelings of social pain.
“This is important because the use of such ‘top-down,’ suppressive emotion regulation has been shown to backfire and is linked with poor emotion-related outcomes such as impulsivity,” he said.
“Mindful people are likely using a more ‘bottom-up’ regulatory approach, which makes sense given these individuals’ tendency to focus on the organic origins of their feelings. On a practical level, our findings point to the utility of mindfulness in coping with interpersonal stressors. People dealing with exclusion or rejection may likely benefit from training in mindfulness techniques.”
The new findings also shed light on the underlying neural mechanisms of aggression and violence within interpersonal relationships.
“An over-reliance on top-down emotion-regulation strategies can result in self-regulatory failure,” Martelli said. “Therefore, more bottom-up strategies, such as mindfulness, may be effective at regulating difficult emotions such as anger or frustration that typically result in violent or aggressive acts.”
Source: Virginia Commonwealth University