When someone hurts your feelings, do you feel physical pain too? A new study in Psychological Science suggests that it's very possible for social rejection to cause physical pain as well. And although the authors found that acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help alleviate some of that pain, that may not be the best way to deal with rejection.
THE DETAILS: The study was conducted using two experiments. In the first, the researchers had 30 participants take either 500 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen or a placebo, once when they woke up and again before going to bed, every day for three weeks. At the end of each day, the participants would rank how much social pain they had experienced—having their feelings hurt, or experiencing exclusion from activities. Over the three-week period, people who took acetaminophen reported a significant decrease in hurt feelings, while those taking a placebo did not.
In the second experiment, 25 college students took two 500-mg doses of either acetaminophen or a placebo after waking up and before going to bed. After three weeks had passed, they were asked to go to a lab where they were told they would be playing a virtual ball-tossing game with two other people. During various rounds of the game, study participants would be excluded; the other two players would stop throwing the ball to them. Afterward, the participants filled out questionnaires reporting whether or not they felt excluded during the game. The participants were hooked up to MRI scanners so researchers could monitor their brain activity during the game. The scans showed that there was less activity in regions of the brain that respond to social rejection in people who had taken acetaminophen compared with people taking a placebo, particularly during the times when the players were being excluded from the ball-tossing game. Those who had taken acetaminophen were also less likely than those on a placebo to report feeling excluded on the questionnaire.
WHAT IT MEANS: While you may be tempted to reach for a bottle of Tylenol to help yourself or a loved one deal with a painful breakup or bullying at school, Nathan DeWall, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and the study's lead author, says that wasn't really the point of his study. "At this time, I don't think our results call for widespread usage of acetaminophen to treat social woes," he says. "The general idea of our study was to see if there was a biological basis for this tendency people have for describing socially painful events, like social rejection, using words related to physical pain—being heartbroken, feeling crushed." If there is a true mind-body connection between physical pain and social pain, he adds, numbing the physical pain would, theoretically, help alleviate those (literally) hurt feelings. And his study suggests that this is in fact the case. "People who experience loneliness or rejection feel ashamed about it," DeWall says. "They brush it off as no big deal. If there's one thing I want people to get out of this study it's to understand how serious the pain of rejection really is."
To recover from that pain, it's best to rely on healthy coping skills that allow you to better relate to people or avoid those you can't seem to get along with, says psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, director of the Life Management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a Rodale.com advisor. "Don't give up trying to connect with others and try not to be hard on yourself. Learn what you can from your experience."
Here are some ways to cope with social rejection—or avoid it in the first place:
Don't take it personally.
There is some logic to that old standby, "It's not you, it's me." There are a lot of reasons why relationships end, or never get going in the first place, says Rossman, and often it has nothing to do with you. "A boyfriend may be afraid of making a long-term commitment for reasons that are entirely about him," he says. "His ending the relationship may be because he's not ready for the kind of committed relationship you are wanting and ready for." And the same holds true when you try to make friends with people who seem uninterested in becoming your friend. If you've tried to befriend a coworker or neighbor who continually rejects your efforts, move on. "You can't be friends with everyone, but you can be friends with a few people you are compatible with," Rossman adds.
That being said, sometimes it is you. Rossman notes that there are certain personality types that are more susceptible to rejection than others. They usually fall into the "Type D" group, "d" meaning "distressed." These people are usually more prone to worry, irritability, and gloom, and they're more socially inhibited than others. Also, "they tend to not share these emotions with others, because of fear of rejection or disapproval," Rossman adds. If you fall into this group, try to spend time with current friends who are more outgoing. Their social ease may make it easier for you to develop new relationships
Find self-esteem boosters.
One of the best ways to protect yourself against the painful effects of rejection is to improve your self-esteem, says Rossman. You can always exercise, which has been found to boost body image and self-esteem. Another way to boost your self-esteem is to find a hobby or activity that makes you feel good about yourself, whether it's volunteering at a nearby animal shelter or taking an art class at the local community center.
Know the warning signs.
DeWall notes in his study that negative and painful reactions to social rejection could lead to aggressive or antisocial behavior. Even if you don't feel like you're in pain every time you get rejected, Rossman says there are a few warning signs that might indicate that you're handling it badly:
1. You find yourself withdrawing from people and forgoing activities you have enjoyed for fear of rejection.
2. You expect rejection and then feel resentful of other people.
3. You end relationships in order to reject others before they can reject you.
4. You provoke conflicts in order to find a reason to end a relationship.
5. You turn to unhealthy behaviors to help you soothe your hurt feelings, such as excessive emotional eating or drinking, drug use, or overspending.
Feel better physically.
This study suggest that there's a physical component to the pain of rejection. So try healthy remedies that will make your body feel better. Treat yourself to a massage, a warm bath, some light exercise or yoga, or just some relaxing downtime.