Social Rejection: What Happens in the Brain?

Social rejection can cause great discomfort. Discover what brain mechanisms are involved in this experience.

Social Rejection: What Happens in the Brain During Rejection?
Elena Sanz

Written and reviewed by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: November 22, 2022

Social rejection is painful whether it’s from someone you trust or someone you’ve just met. We’ll then explain what’s going on in the brain when you do this, so you can better understand the reasons for the discomfort.

The brain reacts interpreting rejection as pain, however, the effects also depend on each person’s attitude. Are you curious? Then read on…

social rejection

It would often come in handy to be immune to rejection, including when you’re job hunting or have fallen in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same about you. However, we are programmed to require group acceptance. It is an evolutionary adaptation that made it easier for our ancestors to survive.

Since exclusion was synonymous with death, the body developed a Alarm system to warn us of the danger of rejection. Even today, this program runs in the brain when there is social rejection.

The endogenous opioid system is activated by both physical pain and the experience of rejection.

Social Rejection: How Does the Brain Respond?

This interesting mechanism in the brain has been studied in various research studies. Here is a summary of the key findings:

Social rejection hurts

When we are rejected, we feel miserable on a psychological and emotional level. The pain can be so severe that you can almost feel it physically. Has this happened to you too? If so, you should know that you are not just imagining it. researches from the University of Michigan led by Ethan Kross show that social rejection activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

It was already known that those brain areas responsible for the affective component of pain responsible also regulates the experience of rejection. These new findings go even further, however, because they show that even areas related to the sensory component of pain are activated when rejection is intense. In other words, rejection is painful.

The opioid system becomes active

Further evidence for the idea described is provided by considering the body’s reaction after rejection. When we suffer physical injuries or feel organic pain, activates the brain’s natural pain system by using the body’s own opioids releases, to alleviate suffering.

An actual study shows, that these chemicals are also released in situations of social distress and isolation. This occurs not only in humans, but also in animals. The pain signals are dampened by the release of these substances into the interneuronic space.

But that’s not all. The same study also found that people who have better resilience exhibit (based on a personality questionnaire) released more opioids when socially rejected. That might explain why these people find it easier to deal with adversity and recover afterwards.

These findings are also useful for understanding disorders such as depression or social phobia Interesting. It is possible that in these people the natural pain relieving system is not working as effectively; therefore, social stress and negative interactions affect them more.

Similar to an addiction

Finally, scientists have found that rejection or the loss of a loved one can produce reactions similar to addiction. Because like this study indicates, Love and passion activate the brain’s reward circuits. These are the areas related to motivation, gain/loss, desire, and emotion regulation.

These regions are also developing addictions (e.g. after cocaine and other substances) involved. Therefore, it is understandable that the rejected person may exhibit strong feelings of uneasiness, longing, or develop compulsive patterns of behavior in search of the loved one.

Social rejection activates the same brain areas as physical pain.

Social rejection is not a punishment

As you can see, rejection (and the suffering that comes with it) has interesting neurological correlates. The brain reacts like it does with pain, so you feel uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. You can work on your beliefs and attitude. If you resilience If you develop and acquire efficient coping strategies, you will be better able to overcome rejection.

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