It turns out that the physical pain of heartache that follows a break-up isn’t a figment of the imagination.

A recent study led by University professors, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that social or romantic rejection activates the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain in the body.

Ethan Kross, an assistant professor of psychology and faculty associate at the University’s Institute of Social Research, was the lead author in the study.

“When people think about intense rejection experiences, they may well be experiencing physical pain sensations in their body,” Kross said.

To determine which parts of the brain are co-activated by the experiences of rejection and physical pain, Kross and his colleagues conducted a study in which 40 individuals who had recently experienced an undesired break-up in a romantic relationship engaged in two different tasks while undergoing MRI scanning.

Participants were presented with a picture of the person who they were no longer in a relationship with and asked to think about the specific break-up experience. The second component involved a device called a thermode, which the researchers attached to the participants’ forearms. With this device, they created a pain sensation by heating the device to the temperature of a hot cup of coffee, Kross said.

The findings from the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, showed that the experience of social rejection prompted by the pictures activated the same regions in the brain that are known to react to the sensory experience of pain. The results gave scientific evidence to the idea that break-ups cause physical pain, Kross said.

“When someone says, ‘My feelings hurt, my body hurts, I’m devastated,’ when they experience rejection, maybe we shouldn’t trivialize those reactions because people may well be experiencing some type of physical pain,” he said.

Throughout the study, Kross collaborated with Marc Berman, a psychology research assistant at the University, along with Walter Mischel and Edward Smith, both professors of psychology at Columbia University, and Tor Wager, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Smith said the clarity of the results surprised him.

“We didn’t know for sure that we would be able to pick up pain areas that are associated with sensory experience, and we did,” Smith said. “That had not been shown before.”

The level of social rejection the participants experienced was an aspect of the study that differed from previous ones on the topic, Smith said. He described the participants as “people who really had a serious rejection, not a minor one created by a laboratory situation, but a real life rejection.”

While there have been many studies conducted in the past that examined the neural aspects of social rejection, the research is the first to identify the specific sensory pain regions that are activated in response to social or romantic rejection, Kross said.

The study has given researchers a desire to better understand the phenomenon, Kross said. He added that the new findings also shed light on how people should approach recovery from negative social experiences like rejection.

“Thinking differently about the experience or getting people to work through these events might be useful in helping them combat these feelings and ultimately feel better,” Kross said.

Future studies might include the use of behavioral therapy or standard psychotherapy in treating patients suffering from social rejection, Smith said.

“We can use these activations in the brain area as biological markers of the rejection and the pain of rejection, and once you have a marker, you can see if it’s decreasing with treatment,” Smith said.

Geoff MacDonald, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, said he thinks using these findings as an excuse to simply medicate patients — rather than approaching recovery in a more holistic manner — is not the take-home point of the study.

“If all you do is numb people to the pain with medication, then when the medication lifts, people haven’t necessarily formed those social bonds that they would normally be motivated to form because they’re feeling upset,” he said.

MacDonald added that the study emphasized the importance of social connections in battling feelings of rejection and isolation, rather than the use of medication.

“What this research is suggesting is that it’s that sense of connection to other people that is probably the best defense against experiences of social pain,” he said. “I would rather have a friend than a Tylenol.”

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