There have been recent studies to date like this one, that have found evidence to support the theory that rejection is processed in the same pathways and centers in the brain as physical pain. These evidences have been documented primarily through verbal expression (regardless of language) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) where blood is observed and documented in functioning areas of the brain when people experience any degree of social rejection.
For example, this recent article discusses a study where participants where asked to participate in a virtual game of ball tossing, where the participant experienced social rejection after the other two participants stopped passing him or her the ball. In reality the other two participants did not exist, it was merely a computer simulation. However after the exercise, the participants were asked to document their feelings about the experience, while undergoing an fmri scan. It was discovered that the participants experience of rejection where registered in the same regions of the brain known for registering physical pain. Even more striking in this study is that researchers discovered that upon the experience of social rejection, the brain produced it’s own opioids to ease the pain. It was further observed by the researchers that individuals who tested as having more resilient personality traits produced more opioids in response to social rejection than others.
In the latter part of the article, it was theorized that perhaps people suffering from depression or social anxiety have an abnormal opioid response system and how this research would provide drug companies with more information for making medications that treat anxiety.
What if you didn’t need medication to deal with social rejection, real or perceived? What if having a resilient attitude influences your brain chemistry to producing more opioids in response to social rejection. Or perhaps, what if the opioids are produced in response to a mental decision to accept the pain of the social rejection for what it is and move on.
From time to time, I come across research that suggests the reason we experience pain from social rejection is due to our instincts as mammals to bond to our caretakers when we are children. However, children experience pain a lot differently from adults, this is mostly because children have very little information about their world to establish a frame of reference for pain, physically and emotionally. Hence when children experience pain they often become alarmed and cry out for assistance of an adult caretaker, who hopefully will bring some comfort into their world.
As adults, our experience of pain is significantly different, this is because with experience we have come to establish beliefs about which experiences with pain, emotional or physical are more alarming than others. Take for instance, some days ago I accidentally burned myself on my clothing iron. The actual experience lasted less than a second. I was ironing a shirt, my hand accidentally made contact with the hot end of the iron and I took away my hand instantly. Despite the pain I experienced afterwards, I was not alarmed. I simply continued ironing my shirt, knowing that my hand would hurt a little for a while afterward before healing, which is exactly what happened.
Now what if a person could develop that same attitude towards social rejection? Years ago I was invited to be interviewed for a job I had applied for. The interview lasted for approximately an hour and fifteen minutes. It was interesting as somewhere during the interview it turned into an oral examination of my clinical knowledge, and literally a written exam. I did well with every question I was asked, and two months later when I suddenly heard from them and was offered a job, I respectfully declined.
I declined because throughout the interview, I perceived nothing but hostility from the lead interviewer. The lead interviewer never returned my smile, ignored my gesture for a hand shake while everyone else on the panel shook my hand and expressed politeness skills. I felt confused and upset by the hostility of this interviewer and once I found out that this interviewer would be my supervisor if I was hired, I made up my mind that I would not take the job.
From my perspective I was simply listening to my feelings. Even though rejection does hurt, I believe that I am not entitled to be liked. Therefore it is irrational for me to intentionally associate myself with others who reject me. Like the pain from the hot iron, I did a cost benefit analysis and made a decision to not involve myself with that organization. Once I decided that job was not for me, I felt better during the interview as I came to recognize that the lead interviewer had no power to give to me, what I couldn’t get for myself.
Perhaps pain experienced during social rejection is relative, perhaps the more pain you experience in response to social rejection and the more it lingers, is indicative that you believe that without acceptance from that particular group you will not be able to get a particular need met. Perhaps people who are resilient to social rejection, are resilient because they believe that there is someone for everybody.
Personally I believe in life, we always have options. For everything that does not go your way, there is always an opposite occurrence waiting for you to experience.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.