“It hurts”. Brain’s standpoint on social rejection

Rejection. You feel like your stomach suddenly disappears, your eyes get weary, your whole body starts to ache, but most of all, you feel hurt. Really hurt. As in actual pain. Have you ever wondered why your body responds that way to rejection?

Do you remember the feeling of rejection? It was there not too long ago. Maybe it still is. You feel like your stomach suddenly disappears, your eyes get weary, your whole body starts to ache, but most of all, you feel hurt. Really hurt. As in actual pain. Have you ever wondered why your body responds that way to rejection?

The Modern Anxiety

Picture this.

I particularly remember the anxiety that browsing through Facebook feed sometimes was giving me, months and months on end, where people were parted mostly between two major behavior categories: one category was filled with frustrated, angry, verbally violent and utterly hateful people, responding to the inadequacies of our society and spitting each other like in a battlefield; the other one was filled with people living (consciously or less) totally separated by this palpably hurting and overbearing reality, in a parallel universe where sun is always shining and the happiness on their sunbathed faces almost gives you a cringe. I felt trapped between these two worlds, mostly because I couldn’t express neither of these extreme states of mind. So I stayed in the middle, right where they would bump into each other and collide.

Thankfully, I managed to install a certain balance in emotionally responding to these two opposing realities, which was kind of hard to do, because of my own personal, intimate opposing realities. On one hand, I went through a period of constant rejection – including and especially my own – by men, by friends, by random strangers, by my workplace, by the Universe’s Department of Change. I felt rejected on a more subtle way, sure, but it was there and it was consuming me. On the other hand, my desire to escape boundaries and all the “musts” and “shoulds”, was floating onto a puffy imaginary cloud, covered by dreams and plans for the future and by my evergreen love for my family and friends, which gave me reasons to move forward and rise up as many times as I needed to.

Going back for a moment to the part where I felt the “Facebook anxiety”, I realize that people nowadays get so easily thrown under the bus just because they (dare to) express a different opinion than the other’s, thus leading to a horrific scene of public shaming and bullying. How did we become these over-critical people, universal judges of value and status? How dare we hate one another so bad, without even opening ONE eye to see the other? We reject without care and we suffer when rejected. We splash strong words into the public scene, like kids with stones at the lake, conveniently forgetting that there are people behind those names we so courageously “put in place”.

Words get out of our fingers so easily and so raw, it almost feels like any empathy filter has disappeared from our genes completely and irrevocably. Never had it been so present this constant fear of rejection, at this particular large scale, than it is now. Social media is amazing in so many ways, with people (re)connecting from all over the world, mobilizing communities into building great things together, but it also is dauntingly dangerous, making social rejection a real case of depression and anxiety.

“Rejection is painful”, the brain said

Some time ago, I started doing some research on how the brain responds to rejection – yes, I’ve had this subject stuck in my sleeve for a while now – and, to my delight, there are some pretty interesting medical studies out there focusing on this matter. One of the studies is the one made by University of Michigan Medical School, where the team led by David. T. Hsu, Ph.D. created an experiment that would observe the behavior in the human brain when faced with social rejection. Specifically, the medical team scanned the brain while tracking the mu-opioid system and the release of chemicals during social rejection.

These chemicals – named opioids – are the same that get released by our brain when we are in physical pain, acting as natural painkillers – “the findings [e.n. of the research] show that the brains natural painkiller system responds to social rejection not just physical injury.” [read more about the study on Michigan Medicine]

What was also very interesting about this study was the fact that people with a higher resilience score released a higher level of opioids during social rejection. This makes me think about the different emotional experiences we go through in life, which help us grow some kind of inner strength that may be translated into resilience. “The skin grows thicker” sounds familiar? This research basically tells us that throwing rejection (in all of its forms) towards other people can make them feel as we are punching or physically assaulting them.

It’s part of you and me

Still, rejection is part of life. Many times, we end up rejecting people with no intent of hurting them. And vice versa. Not all people and situations that have caused me feel rejection intended to punch me in the stomach, but hey, shit happens. And that’s when we grow resilience. That’s when we start learning better ways to lead our thoughts and reactions. Maybe that’s when the brain learns to respond more actively – opioid-wise – to states of social rejection.

“MOR (e.n. mu-opioid receptor system) regulation of this pathway may preserve and promote emotional well being in the social environment”, as the study explains, while opening the door to developing a better understanding of depression and anxiety. Of course, there are many talks around the subject of opioids and behavioral sciences, but simply put, it is somewhat refreshing to connect a different view to our actions and to our emotional experiences.

Learning more about our brain can make us a bit more responsible to our own well being, investing more in strengthening our wires and becoming more conscious about how everything we think and / or do has some kind of consequence. The human brain is wired in so many amazing and surprising ways, so getting to know pieces of how it works can also help us build healthier human interactions and – here’s a stretch – try to be kinder to one another.

People, the time for better loving is here, in our hands. Let.Love.In. Let love in.


Further reading:

Sticks and stones: Brain releases natural painkillers during social rejection, U-M study finds, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Why rejection hurts so much and what to do about it, Guy Winch

Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain, Ethan Krossa, Marc G. Bermana, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smithb, Tor D. Wagerd; University of Michigan, Columbia University New York, New York State Psychiatric Institute, University of Colorado

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