Rejection is a hurtful experience for any person, and it can have a big effect on mental health. Now, researchers in California may have found a way to relieve the pain.
Pain is a complex process, with physical and emotional consequences.
“Research has shown that physical pain and social pain are influenced by some of the same biological processes in the brain and body,” says George Slavich, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Physical pain may be more noticeable than social pain. Yet social pain is one of the most common feelings that we experience.
Formally defined as “a specific emotional reaction to the perception that one is being excluded from desired relationships or being devalued by desired relationship partners or groups,” social pain can result from the end of a friendship or romantic relationship, or rejection in the workplace.
And, just like physical pain, it can have serious health consequences, as Slavich explains.
“Experiencing a socially painful life event, like a relationship breakup, is one of the strongest predictors of developing depression in adolescence and adulthood.”
“Social pain is also associated with decreased cognitive functioning and increased aggression and engagement in self-defeating behaviors, like excessive risk-taking and procrastination.”
As well as having effects on mental health, social pain can also cause physical health problems.
It is still unclear why social rejection causes physical pain. One possibility is that the pain is an evolutionary response designed to “[alert] the person to the fact that an important social relationship has been threatened or lost,” Slavich says.
“This may motivate the person to try to rekindle the relationship or form other relationships to help ensure continued safety and survival.”
Previous research has suggested that a person can alleviate social pain with a treatment that can relieve physical pain: an active pain reliever ingredient called acetaminophen.
Another potential strategy focuses on the psychological side — promoting forgiveness in an effort to reduce negative emotions and possibly replace them with more positive ones.
The new study, led by Slavich and appearing in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, combined the two techniques to see whether targeting social pain physically and psychologically would be more effective than using a single approach.
The participants were 42 healthy young adults ranging in age from 18 to 22. The researchers randomly assigned each individual to one of three groups.
One group received 1,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen daily, the second group received 400 mg of a placebo potassium pill daily, and the third group received no pills.
Over the course of 3 weeks, the participants also filled out a survey each day that assessed their levels of social pain and forgiveness.
“When combined with a tendency to forgive, taking acetaminophen substantially reduced how much social pain people felt over time,” notes Slavich, a senior author of the study.
“More specifically, participants taking acetaminophen who were high in forgiveness exhibited an 18.5% reduction in social pain over the 20-day study period.”
To the authors’ knowledge, the team’s findings are the first to show that acetaminophen and forgiveness successfully work together to reduce social pain over time.
The researchers have a theory to explain their findings; it involves the idea that both components treat social pain in different ways.
“For example, acetaminophen likely reduces social pain by influencing pain signaling in the brain through its effects on specific brain pathways,” Slavich explains.
Forgiveness, meanwhile, “has been found to lessen peoples’ feelings of stress and anger following experiences of social rejection and exclusion.”
In other words, acetaminophen may reduce social pain levels while forgiveness reduces the chances of the feeling returning later on.
The researchers also believe that acetaminophen’s reduction of social pain may allow people to forgive more easily.
Future investigations will need to explore these possibilities in more depth.
Researchers hope to better understand how acetaminophen and forgiveness can alleviate social pain and, most importantly, how to use that knowledge to enhance human health and well-being.
The present study also had a small sample size; further studies with bigger, more diverse participant groups are in order.
Overall, it seems clear that the combination of forgiveness and a common pain relief medication warrants more attention from researchers.