Hurts So Bad

Illustration of the pain pathway in René Desca...

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Social rejection, that is.

Current theorizing suggests that the brain systems that underlie social rejection developed by coopting brain circuits that support the affective component of physical pain (1, 2, 9). The current findings substantively extend these views by demonstrating that social rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing, they share a common representation in somatosensory brain systems as well.


Although the experience of social rejection is commonly accompanied by reports of various emotions (e.g., fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, and shame), it is generally assumed that these feelings cumulatively give rise to a unique experience of “social pain” (3537). The results of the meta-analyses we performed in this study, which indicated that fMRI studies of specific emotions rarely activate OP1 and dpINS, are consistent with this view.

Decision making ability goes down the tubes:

Researchers have known for a long time that there is a link between social exclusion and the failure of self-control. For instance, people who are rejected in social situations often respond by abusing alcohol, expressing aggression or performing poorly at school or work.


The new study, however, is the first to use MEG to show that there are actual changes inside the brain when test subjects are manipulated to feel socially excluded. MEG is an imaging technique that measures the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain.

Analogous to a trapped, wounded animal, no?  Except in this case, being trapped means being trapped in ongoing living with intentionally inflicted and unrelieved distress.

Here’s the linkage:

“Although it has long been suggested that mu-opioids play a role in social pain — and there are convincing animal models that show this — this is the first human study to link this mu-opioid receptor gene with social sensitivity in response to rejection,” Eisenberger said.

“These findings suggest that the feeling of being given the cold shoulder by a romantic interest or not being picked for a schoolyard game of basketball may arise from the same circuits that are quieted by morphine,” said Baldwin Way, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar and the lead author on the paper.

Eisenberger argues that this overlap in the neurobiology of physical and social pain makes good sense.

“Because social connection is so important, feeling literally hurt by not having social connections may be an adaptive way to make sure we keep them,” she said. “Over the course of evolution, the social attachment system, which ensures social connection, may have actually borrowed some of the mechanisms of the pain system to maintain social connections.”

Back to the usual: the interpersonal theory of suicidality.  The two conditions of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomness are met with social rejection that isn’t fully remediated. Baumeister explains that human attachment is a fundamental – essential for survival – need:

A hypothesized need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships is evaluated in light of the empirical literature.  The need is for frequent, nonaversive interactions within an ongoing relational bond.  Consistent with the belongingness hypothesis, people form social attachments readily under most conditions and resist the dissolution of existing bonds.  Belongingness appears to have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and on cognitive processes.  Lack of attachments is linked to a variety of ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being.  Other evidence, such as that concerning satiation, substitution, and behavioral consequences, is likewise consistent with the hypothesized motivation.  Several seeming counterexamples turned out not to disconfirm the hypothesis.  Existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.


Suicide becomes the means to put a permanent end on an inflicted permanent unbearable degree of suffering – real physiologic and psychologic suffering.


4 thoughts on “Hurts So Bad

  1. That all makes a lot of sense. I have thought before that when someone is trying to kick a bad habit, say drinking soda, it helps for them to have a lot of social support, that much would be obvious to anyone. A good experiment might be to take fledgling health-seekers who go to something like Mark Sisson’s Primalcon and compare their rates of commitment to keeping the habit off to those who don’t. Or maybe healthy families vs. one person trying to lose some weight in a family of people who don’t care about health. That others aren’t supportive of one’s goals the self-control aspect will probably be more likely to flounder.

    • I’ve been blogging using ostracism and other distressors as targets to address suicidality, which is a different direction altogether from what you contributed. But your perspective leads to a lot of interesting questions and possible applications: could this be a possible reason for people bingeing – using food/alcohol/psychoactive substances as a pain reliever (mu opioids), coupled with a down regulation of decision-making and self control leading to repetitive and impulsive behaviors?

      On the flip side, using support groups to develop and nurture relationships could help people dealing with chronic health conditions manage them better since they would have the benefits of comfort from social support, interpersonal attachments, common interests and challenges, and similar/shared health goals?

      • No doubt that positive relationships help many things, from health conditions to suicidality. There is the element of the meaning and self-esteem that is generated from them, which will make them more likely to want to keep living, and although it isn’t completely proven, you have shown here how social support could potentially lead to a more proactive and consistent effort to overcome a health issue. That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous works. I actually have a history of drug abuse and it is certainly easier to stay away from it when sobriety is what will yield social approval. If doing drugs is what will yield social approval then obviously the peer pressure will be a negative factor. I assume it is the same for eating junk food.

        Then there are also the physiological factors that play into the psychological. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Emily Deans and her blog Evolutionary Psychiatry, but she has shown many times that dysregulated and chronic inflammation affects the serotonin and dopamine systems and is strongly linked with depression. And when you have lots of happy social moments you will have an influx of endorphins, which are
        anti-inflammatory mediators and promote health. So it works on multiple levels! Incredible stuff that friendship thing is 🙂

        • Your linkage of this to activities of daily living then promoting homeostasis is congruent with my thinking. The converse – ostracism via bullying, blacklisting, social exclusion, and social oppression (refusing to hire those who are unemployed, wage/earning disparities, bigotry, criminalization of homelessness, mental illness, prosecuting whistleblowers, etc.) – then becomes a target to reduce/eliminate via policy/practice/programming and enculturation. When you look at identified demographics of suicide risk, they line up with ostracized outgroups.

          Thanks so much for commenting.

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