Study Suggests Link Between Social Pain and Physical Pain

Individuals throughout the world have felt the impact of social rejection. Whether it occurred in elementary school, high school or the work place, social rejection can wreak havoc on a person’s mental health.

Now, research is finding a link between physical pain sensitivity and social pain sensitivity, putting to shame the phrase, “Your words can never hurt me.” UCLA psychologists argue that they indeed can hurt.

Science Daily published a summary of a study completed by these psychologists. According to their findings, variation in the mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1), which is often associated with physical pain, is related to how much social pain a person feels in response to social rejection.

This research suggests that people with a rare form of the gene are more sensitive to rejection and therefore experience more brain evidence of distress in response to rejection that those with the more common form.

“What we found is that individuals with the rare form of the OPRM1 gene also reported higher levels of rejection sensitivity and showed greater activity in social pain–related regions of the brain in response to being excluded,” said study co-author Naomi Eisenberger, UCLA assistant professor of psychology and director of UCLA’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.

The distress of physical pain is found in the dorsal anterior congulate cortex and anterior insula in the brain. Eisenberger and her colleagues have completed other studies that have shown these brain regions are also involved in the pain of social rejection.

“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.

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