We all know that rejection hurts, but neuroscience has concluded that it does in fact, literally, hurt. While the brain does not process emotional pain and physical pain identically, the reaction and cascading events are very similar, and a natural chemical (painkiller mu-opioid) is released during both events. For example, when someone feels physical pain, opioids are released in the brain so that the significance of the pain is inhibited. We now know this same experience occurs when an individual feels slighted or rejected by others.
Rejection And Resiliency In The Age Of Social Media
Despite emotional wounds being invisible, anguish, distress and stress are becoming more and more common. As we are now rejected frequently with small snubs like unfollowing on Twitter, swiping left on Tinder, not liking an Instagram post, not matching on a dating site or being alone during the holidays, these emotions are felt more often. Social media and constant contact to millions of people at any moment–although further distances between personal connections–inherently mean that more people can reject us, even if it’s as small as not liking our social media post when we liked theirs.
Research out of the University of Michigan suggests that not only does the brain process rejection like it does physical injury, but that personality traits such as “resilience” are vital to how we process pain. The brain’s natural painkilling response varies between humans, with some releasing more opioids during social rejection than others, meaning that some have a stronger–or more adaptive–protective ability. When mu opioid is released, there is a trigger in two areas of the brain: One (the amygdala) processes the strength of the emotion, and the other (the pregenual cingulate cortex) determines how your mood changes because of the event. Therefore, the more opioid released, the greater reduction in pain–and possibly a greater experience of pleasure when someone feels that they’ve been socially accepted or validated.
A step further, and it could be argued that those prone to social anxiety, panic attacks and depression release less opioid, and therefore take longer and do not recover as well from negative social experiences. These individuals may also struggle to gain as much pleasure from social support as those who get more opioid in the pregenual cingulate cortex.
Heartbreak Can Lower Your IQ
Heartbreak, loss or being left out are particularly difficult to process for humans as social creatures. But the impact is not only limited to how the brain processes the emotions and pain associated with rejection. There is also evidence that suggests not being able to “think straight” is a real outcome of feeling rejected.
According to research from Case Western Reserve University, exposure to rejection led participants in a study to have an immediate drop in reasoning by 30% and in IQ by 25%. It was also determined that feelings of rejection led participants to become more aggressive and exhibit less self-control.
How Can We Learn To Cope Better?
So what are we to do when we feel slighted by those we love or those we don’t even know but affect us via social outlets? First, realize we are probably taking it too personally. We are all busy, we all have many forms of communication and social feeds bombarding us with stimuli, and we are often selective in what we are able to get to first. Think of it as a way to triage. We can internally put our most important “to do” items and closest connections first. It could therefore be as simple as someone hasn’t seen your interaction or post, as there are so many feeds flooding them at any given moment. There are also individual and demographic differences in how people interact (these often come in the form of those who troll pictures and post but never interact with anyone).
It is also important to remember that we recall emotional rejection more strongly than physical pain, and it can therefore cause longer-term sensitivity. When this happens, seek out validation and reminders of the positive impact we have on others or who cares about us. During the holidays, this can mean making proactive plans with friends or reaching out to those we love but are often too busy to connect with closely. Most importantly, it is important to allow the feelings to be processed and respected, but not to assign to much value to them, as they will subside, and our bodies will cope with emotional rejection over time, just as it does physical pain.
If you’ve felt rejection that is difficult to overcome, contact me for further help at 704-741-2082.