The Science Behind Why Rejection Hurts So Damn Much


Rejection hurts, literally.

Most people have experienced rejection at one point or another. Whether from an unrequited love, getting fired from a job, or outcast from a friend group, experiencing rejection may elicit an almost corporeal pain. That reaction is actually extremely normal; emotional and physical pain are actually intricately connected, especially in the case of social rejection.

Do people fear rejection in the same way that they might fear a physical wound? Science suggests that many do. 

According to psychologist Guy Winch in his new book, Emotional First Aid, rejection is such a strong emotion that the body actually registers the sensation as if it were a physical pain. Think of a breakup; if you have ever been rejected from a romantic partner, you might have felt pressure suffocating you, trouble breathing, or jabbing pain like a sharp knife. Social rejection is an incredibly strong disturbance, but rejection related to a feeling as strong as love causes a response that is both visceral and physical.

The physical pain associated with rejection explains why it hurts so badly to feel unwanted or like an outcast. Consider the pain that a child feels who is the last one selected to play a game of kickball or the intense rejection felt by a high school student who isn't asked to prom. It isn't simply sadness or humiliation that these people feel; it is real, physical distress. It feels, essentially, the same as a slap in the face. 

In fact, rejected love is essentially what people refer to as the pain of a broken heart. Studies have shown that heartbreak can actually elicit physical pain and illness. In fact, stress cardiomyopathy is the name of the condition when heart muscles are weakened because of extreme stress. Even more interesting was a study published in the journal Circulationwhich concluded that one who feels heartbroken could actually be at greater risk of heart attack, "with heart attack risk being 21 times higher than normal on the day of a bereavement."

Negative emotions are a part of life; we will all occasionally experience, for example, disappointment, fear, shame, humiliation and insecurity. Different people cope with these emotions in a variety of ways. Some seek solitude to recover while others prefer the company of others; certain people keep their emotions bottled up while others are open to confess their pain. But according to Salon, rejection is distinct from other negative emotions because of the magnitude of the pain the feeling emits. In addition, feeling rejected often elicits a whole host of other negative emotions. 

The intense pain of rejection is rooted in our evolutionary past. Humans are social creatures: not only do we enjoy the company of others, but our ability to survive and reproduce throughout history has been dependent upon being part of a group. Being cut off from a tribe or group left an outcast vulnerable without "access to food, protection, and mating partners, making it extremely difficult to survive." 

Brain scans have revealed that rejection and physical pain manifest themselves in identical regions of the brain. In fact,"the two systems are so tightly linked" that individuals who took Tylenol (a drug that treats physical pain) reported less emotional pain from rejection. The drug was ineffective in minimizing the effects from other emotions.  

Professor Edward Smith went even further, scanning and examining the brains of 40 individuals who recently experienced break-ups. For half of the study, participants looked at photographs of their exes and for the other half they looked at pictures of platonic friends. In order to induce a comparative physical pain, Smith placed probes on the participants forearms that could get extremely hot. Not surprisingly, "the scientists found that parts of the brain linked with physical pain also lit up when individuals were remembering bad breakups."

Perhaps the human body and brain are more interconnected than we could have imagined. While physical pain often leaves a greater physical mark, emotional pain and the feeling of rejection, in particular, is just as distressing.