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Why Isolation and Rejection Hurts So Much: The Social Pain/Physical Pain Overlap


By Savannah Stanley, LPC-Intern


It is no secret that people are hard-wired to connect. In pop culture, every other song, book, and movie have themes of friendship and love. In our daily lives, whether we are pursuing someone romantically or nurturing the friendships and loves that we already have, connection with others is at the forefront.


Think of a time when you felt connected with someone. It could have been as simple as a pleasant interaction with someone in line at the grocery store, or as profound as realizing when you were in love with your partner. Think of how you felt in your body. Maybe you smiled, maybe you felt a sense of warmth.


Neuroscience suggests that during these times, pathways in your brain light up to mirror the emotions and behaviors that the other person or people are conveying. The fact that we evolved with these “mirror neurons” makes it evident how crucial connection is our thriving and survival.


We all want to belong in some way, and fostering positive connections contribute to our feelings of belonging.


What About Disconnections?

In a perfect world, all of our interactions with others would be positive and it would bring us closer to them. However, just as we have all experienced feelings of connection, part of the human experience is also feeling disconnected at times. Whether this is from a breakup, being ghosted on a dating app, bullying, microaggressions, or the FOMO you feel when your friends go somewhere without inviting you, studies have shown that across cultures, we use similar language to describe how we feel during these disconnections.


Have your feelings ever been “hurt” by someone? Have these social hurts ever felt like a “slap in the face”? Does it feel “crushing” when we are criticized by someone we like, and want to like us? Have you ever felt “heartache”? Why do these particular pain-related metaphors come so easily to us when describing disconnection?


Studies are suggesting that social pain and physical pain may not be as dissimilar as we think.

The Social Pain/Physical Pain Overlap Theory

Researchers Eisenberger and Lieberman proposed the Social Pain/ Physical Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT), which suggests that social pain and physical pain share parts of the same underlying processing system. Two specific parts of our brain that are involved in the processing of pain affect, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and right ventral pre-frontal cortex (PFC), are also activated in response to social exclusion.


In essence, the same alarm goes off when our bones are broken as when our hearts are broken. Something in our body goes “Hey! This is not conducive to your survival!”. Ever efficient as our bodies are, evolution decided that instead of having two different processes for both social and physical pain, to have them overlap. The two pains even overlap for individuals in terms of behavior as one’s physical pain sensitivity predicts a stronger reaction to the social pain. Fret not, though, as few studies are showing the promise of acetaminophen (Tylenol) as a treatment for social pain when compared with the use of a placebo, because it would be targeting essentially the same area.


Start to Heal the Social Pain with “STOP SPOT”

Now that we are aware that social pain and physical pain are so closely intertwined, what do we do with this information in our interactions with others? Although acetaminophen seems like a great quick fix, there is a model of decreasing social pain that does not involve taking a pill.


First, we need to SEE.

We need to stay aware of when this social pain happens, locate it, and name it. This helps us to not internalize the pain and shame we feel. Shame stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which often leads to a decrease in energy and a withdrawal from human contact. The social pain may stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which includes our “fight or flight” response. Constant stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to chronic stress, which weakens our immune system.


In other words, pain and shame quite literally make us sick.

Then, we need to TALK.

We’ve told ourselves about the pain, now it is time to tell others. Sharing experiences of social pain can be difficult, especially when all we want to do is isolate. However, not only does talking about these experiences allow us to connect with others, the physical act of talking and using facial expression, throat, and larynx muscles inhibits the sympathetic nervous system, which should ultimately lower your distress.


Then, we need to OPEN.

You may ask, have we not opened already? We told ourselves about the pain, we told others about the pain, how much more open can we be? This tends to be the most challenging step of this model, as it is difficult to want to be open and vulnerable after we’ve been threatened with this social pain. However, if we activate our thinking channels in the brain towards connecting with others who want to comfort and support us, this can ultimately transform the pain into a deeper sense of belonging and safety. By staying open and processing the situation, including developing strategies to handle the hurt in the future, we begin to feel more empowered and like we have the space to share our feelings.


Finally, we need to PARTNER AND PRODUCE

The partnering refers to regular participation in these healthy relationships, as this helps to sustain our brain-body wellbeing. We start seeing that we are not alone in our pain and our resiliency increases. The other part of partnering is coming together around a common purpose to produce new realities and experiences that counter the acceptability of exclusionary actions and mindsets. So, not only are we healing ourselves, we are promoting positive social change through healthy connections.


Having the knowledge that physical pain and social pain share the same underlying processing system is one thing, but the next step is understanding the importance of easing the social pain.


When we are harmed on the outside, we take action to fix that external pain. Why should we not extend the same courtesy to that internal, emotional hurt?

The STOP model exemplifies the importance of first being mindful of the hurt in ourselves so that we may tend to it through therapy and other forms of self-care. Secure attachment with the self is the path to a secure attachment with a partner. By starting to heal our internal pain, we can then begin to feel secure to reach out to have STRONG relationships in our lives where we previously internalized the social pain. Healing pain is no longer exclusive to external pain. By following the STOP model, we can begin to heal our pain from the inside out to foster positive, meaningful connections.


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If you would like personalized help for your life and relationships, and want to start building secure attachments to yourself and others, reach out! We have a team of Licensed therapists and counselors who would be happy to help you reach your goals of healing and connection.


You can book an appointment with Savannah Stanley, LPC-Intern, the author of this article through her bio: About Savannah or check out the rest of our team here.

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