Breakups and rejection hurts physically: Study

The latest study has shown that social and romantic rejections and heartbreaks trigger activity in the brain that's similar to when people suffer physical pain.

Study author Edward E. Smith, director of cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University says, “This tells us how serious rejection can be sometimes…When people are saying 'I really feel in pain about this breakup,' you don't want to trivialize it and dismiss it by saying 'It's all in your mind.'” According to Smith, this study could lead to more than a better understanding of the link between emotional and physical pain. He added, “Our ultimate goal is to see what kind of therapeutic approach might be useful in relieving the pain of rejection.” He calls this a “socially induced pain” that has seep connections with physical pain. “From everyday experience, rejection seems to be one of the most painful things we experience…It seems the feelings of rejection can be sustained even longer than being angry,” he explained.

For the study the researchers from the University of Michigan, Columbia University and the University of Colorado advertised online and in newspapers in search of people whose romantic partners had broken up with them. In all cases, they hadn't wanted the breakups to happen. At long last 40 people all of whom felt “intensely rejected” took part in the study. As the researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the participants were told to look at photos, including photos of their friends (they were directed to think positive thoughts about them), and photos of their exes (they were directed to think about their breakup). The participants also underwent brain scans as they felt pain on their forearms similar to the feeling of holding a hot cup of coffee.

Results showed that several of the same areas of the brain became active when the participants felt either physical pain or emotional pain. In fact, the two types of pain seem to share more regions of the brain than previously thought, Smith noted.

The findings appear in this week's online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Further research could examine how emotional pain due to rejection affects how people feel physical pain, said Robert C. Coghill, an associate professor in the department of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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