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Social Pain Hurts Too

Most doctors don’t recommend Tylenol for a broken heart or a supportive friend for a headache. But an article published by Janet Taylor Spence Award recipient Naomi I. Eisenberger in the February 2012 edition of Current Directions in Psychological Science shows there is a growing body of evidence that social pain shares some of the neural circuitry that underlies physical pain.

Eisenberg explains that physical pain has two components — sensory and affective — each of which is associated with different parts of the brain. Psychological scientists who study social pain have shown that the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex (dACC) and anterior insula, which are crucial to the affective or unpleasant component of pain, are also involved in the experience of social pain. One recent study even indicated that separate regions of the brain associated with the sensory experience of pain were also activated when participants were asked to remember a difficult breakup.

Other studies have suggested that these overlaps in brain activity can affect how people experience social or physical pain. For example, when Eisenberg and her colleagues asked female study participants to rate the pain caused by heat stimuli, the women reported less pain when they were looking at pictures of their romantic partners or holding their romantic partners’ hands. In another experiment, Eisenberg’s team asked participants to take a pill daily and self-report their “hurt feeling” every evening for three weeks. Participants who took acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) daily experienced a decrease in hurt feelings that was not duplicated in the control group, which received a placebo.

There may be an evolutionary explanation for the painful sting of social rejection. Just like physical pain teaches us to avoid dangerous situations, Eisenberg suggests that “over the course of evolutionary history, social pain may have helped us to avoid social rejection, increasing our connections with others, our inclusion in the social group, and ultimately our chances of survival.”

Knowing that emotional pain happens for a good biological reason may be little consolation for those who suffer social rejection; however, Eisenberg points out that those who aren’t sensitive to social pain often suffer from personality disorders. Plus, researching the relationship between physical and social pain might lead to better strategies for lessening both. In the meantime, though, you should probably talk to your physician before popping some Tylenol for a broken heart.

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