Be slow my hurting heart: The pain of social rejection drives down heart rate


You’ve been dumped by a romantic interest you really liked. You’ve been passed over for a job by a boss you thought admired you. A group of friends is going out together, leaving you out of their plans. This kind of social rejection prompts your brain to send warning signals to your body that there’s been a sudden tear in your personal social fabric, says a new study.

Some of those signals you will undeniably feel -- the pain in your gut, the ache in your heart, the lump in your throat. A new study documents another, more subtle warning sign -- a drop in your heart rate.

Nowhere are the ties between mind and body more direct or far-reaching than when we experience pain. That social rejection, grief and depression manifest themselves as physical pain is by now well established. We know that gastrointestinal distress and anxiety are fellow travelers, as are chronic pain and depression. Social isolation slows healing and loneliness hastens the progress of disease. In a study to be published in the October issue of the journal Arthritis Care and Research, Dutch investigators found that anger and sadness amplified the sensation of pain equally in healthy women and in those diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Researchers are increasingly convinced that psychological and physiological pain are so closely bound because they share much of the same underlying neural circuitry.

A new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, offers further evidence that the pain of social rejection sends forth distress signals that the body, over time, would be hard pressed to ignore. In it, a group of Dutch researchers wired up two groups of college students and tracked their heart rates while setting one group to a task that would probably result in hurt feelings. Each subject in the first group flipped through a series of head shots of strangers around their same age, and judged whether he or she believed the person pictured would like him or her. In several instances, the subject would then be informed that the pictured individual had had a chance to view his or her picture, and had expressed dislike.

The control group flipped through the pictures as well, but was asked to guess the age of the pictured person. Each subject then received feedback on whether he or she had guessed right or wrong -- an emotionally neutral exercise.

Subjects who experienced unexpected social rejection were far more likely than subjects guessing ages to have a substantial drop in heart rate, and to regain their normal pattern much more slowly. Subjects who expected rejection and learned that they were disliked by the person in the picture also saw their heart rates drop, but not as steeply or for as long as those who were blindsided by the hurt.

“Social rejection literally results in bodily responses reflecting social hurt,” the authors write. They suggested that the body’s instantaneous physical response to an emotional setback provides further evidence that the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions such as heart beat and respiration rates, gets frequent marching orders from brain regions that process pain and negative emotions.

-- Melissa Healy / Los Angeles Times