Romantic Rejection Hurts — Literally

Study: Rejection pains the brain just like holding a scalding cup of coffee
Study: Rejection pains the brain just like holding a scalding cup of coffee

We’ve all heard the tortured breakup songs that talk about the pain of rejection. I get it. In the days and weeks after my last breakup, I told best friends, family members, postal workers, baristas, and fellow commuters exactly how I felt. It was as if someone had sucker-punched me in the gut, hit me over the head with a mallet, and kicked me down the stairs.

I now have scientific proof that I was not just being dramatic.A University of Michigan study has found that social rejection activates some of the same regions of the brain as painful physical sensations.

The study, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hooked 40 recently heartbroken participants up to a machine that made their arms warm. Researchers measured participants’ brain activity when the stimulus was pleasantly warm and then again when it was painfully hot (probably at the level of holding a hot cup of coffee without the cardboard sleeve). Then participants were shown two pictures, first of a friend, and then of their ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, who had broken up with them within the last two months. Researchers asked participants to recall the circumstances of their breakups. Wallowing in self-pity activated many of the same areas of participants’ brains as the hot stimulus.

So thinking about an ex, even two months after a break-up, can feel like you’re holding an unbearably hot cup of coffee. Maybe I was being a bit hyperbolic about the whole “punched in the gut, kicked down the stairs” thing. But remember, feelings fade over time. This study was done weeks, or even months after the event, and these jilted participants were still feeling burned.

Researchers chose to work with the recently heartbroken because failed romantic experiences are so common, says lead author, Dr. Ethan Kross. “Most people have experienced such events, and they’re just devastating, so they seemed like a good way to explore this,” he says.
Harvard-MIT professor, Dr. John Gabrieli, has researched emotion and social processes in the brain. Gabrieli says other researchers have conducted studies on rejection, but they often used a less intense stimulus to mimic rejection. At UCLA, for instance, scientists led study participants to believe that they were playing a computer game with other people, but then ultimately told them they had been excluded because the other players stopped throwing the ball to them. The study found links between physical pain and social rejection, but Gabrieli says the new findings make this association even clearer.

“You’d always worry that a game in a scanner doesn’t capture the intensity of a romantic relationship that you care about,” he says. “This study makes it more real.”

After reading the study, I thought again about its heartbroken participants. After a breakup, we often feel the agony of a damaged ego and plummeting self-esteem, which are results of the social rejection we’ve experienced. But we also feel the sadness of loss when we miss our significant others. If this is true, is it rejection or loss that stimulates physical pain? If it is loss, perhaps the finding would hold for someone who has lost a family member or a friend.

Gabrieli says he thinks it’s the rejection, not sadness, that causes physical pain. Other studies have linked rejection with pain, and sadness would probably not have the same effects, he says.

“If you’re the person that’s been let go, dumped, it’s not only the loss, but there’s a sense of why am I not good enough for you, why are you leaving me out of your life in a voluntary way?” Gabrieli says.

Whatever the answer, the next time life serves me a helping of rejection pie, and I’m in the mood to complain, I will make sure to tell my friends that I am not speaking metaphorically. And if it’s any consolation to the heartbroken, in the absence of the stimulus (put down the pictures of your ex!), the sting of rejection usually fades without much scarring, just like the pain in your palm goes away after you set down that cup of scalding coffee.

This program aired on March 29, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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