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The Physical Pain of Rejection, Loss & Heartbreak

The physical pain of rejection, loss & heartbreak - Patrick Wanis
The physical pain of rejection, loss & heartbreak
The physical pain of rejection, loss & heartbreak

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the physical pain of rejection, heartbreak and loss, and how that also influences our need for approval and acceptance.

First a quick update:

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Now, let’s talk about the physical pain of rejection, heartbreak and loss, and how that also influences our need for approval and acceptance.

Well, since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell.
It’s down at the end of lonely street
At heartbreak hotel.
You make me so lonely baby,
I get so lonely,
I get so lonely, I could die.

Elvis Presley’s 1956 song and number 1 hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” (named in 2004 by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”), written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton, was based on a newspaper article about the suicide of a lonely man who jumped from a hotel window.

Poets, writers and musicians have all written about what every one of us has experienced – the pain of rejection and loss. And in the same way that we talk about one’s heart being filled with joy and beating faster when in love, we also refer to heartache and extreme pain when there is a breakup, betrayal or rejection.

Heartbreak is experienced in various forms: pain or tightening in the chest, stomachache, loss of appetite, insomnia, anger, shock, nostalgia, apathy, depression, loneliness, frequent or constant crying, and so forth.

Although, some cynical people consider emotional pain as something that can be overridden with will power, science now confirms that what we classify as pain in our heart and body as the result of a breakup or rejection is in fact equivalent to physical pain: the brain processes both physical pain and social rejection in the same way – the same areas in the brain that signify physical pain are activated at moments of intense social loss.

Are you still hung up or angry at your ex?
Are you still hung up or angry at your ex? Click here to get over your ex now!

In a study by the University of Arizona and the University of Maryland (2009), it was revealed that during a particularly stressful experience, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (dACC) of the brain can over stimulate the Vagus nerve – the nerve that starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest and abdomen, and in turn cause pain in the neck and chest and cause nausea.

A more revealing study in 2011 highlighted that physical pain and social rejection both hurt in the same way.

“Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations With Physical Pain,” by Ethan F. Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith and Tor D. Wager; published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers took 40 people who had experienced an unwanted romantic breakup in the past 6 months and who said they felt intense rejection over it. The participants underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans while looking at photos of their ex-partner.  For the second part of the study, the same participants underwent fMRI scans while experiencing a simulated physical pain on the left forearm akin to spilling hot coffee on themselves.

The result: rejection and hot coffee elicited a similar response in the brain.

“We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuro-imaging studies of emotion” – University of Michigan social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author. “These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.”

Simply put – social rejection and loss does, indeed, equal physical pain and heartache.

But there is also another more critical element and insight here. There are two components to pain:

  1. Sensory
    The registering and mapping in the brain of the pain
  2. Emotional
    The level of distress associated with the pain

The extent to which the pain bothers you and how much suffering you are undergoing are also registered in the same part of the brain (dACC) where the hot coffee spill occurred in the study. And this part of the brain is rich in receptors for endorphins, the brain natural opioids or painkillers. Thus, it is common to see people who are suffering from emotional pain such as rejection or loss to seek out painkillers which target the same part of the brain. And yes, that can result in addiction.

Understanding that social rejection causes real physical pain and symptoms in the body is necessary for individual healing but it is also critical for friends and family when dealing with the person suffering the emotional and physical pain.

The question remains, though: Why does the pain of rejection occur in this part of the brain?

It is reasonable to conclude that connection with other people is obviously a critical component of the human experience and it seems as if it is hardwired to push us to group, bond, unite and partner with other people.

Quite possibly, there might also exist a romantic drive for love and attachment further driven by biological and neurological needs, functions and processes. In 1973, Jaak Panksepp Ph.D. psychologist, psychobiologist, and neuroscientist, found that in experiments with puppy dogs, baby rats, and guinea pigs, that the baby animals’ distress over separation from their mothers was soothed by morphine concluding that the attachment is processed in the same part of the brain. Incidentally, his research and findings were not published for decades because his results or conclusions that a mother’s love can be compared to a shot of heroin were deemed much too offensive and controversial.

The final revealing and critical element of all of the above studies is that the very real pain of rejection also pushes us to seek other people’s approval and acceptance because we fear being isolated or outcast and thus we do our best to avoid the pain that it will cause. And for people who are truly highly sensitive, the pain of rejection runs deeper and is felt like an earthquake. People who might be less sensitive in their temperament can benefit and be more empathetic, patient and compassionate to their friends or family who are highly sensitive and have experienced some form of rejection – be it romantic or social.

Thus, the next time someone who feels rejected by you says “Your words are hurtful” or “You broke my heart”, note that they might not simply be acting dramatically – they might actually be speaking of real pain.

If you want more assistance to get over a breakup, betrayal or rejection, use my comprehensive program “Get Over Your Ex Now!” 

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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