Not Just In Your Head: Explaining Social Pain and How to Fight It

Amidst the social isolation and disconnection, are you experiencing social pain?

Updated
Mind It
6 min read
Amidst the social isolation and disconnection, are you experiencing social pain?
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Yes, rejection hurts. We’ve all experienced it at some point.

A rejection letter from a dream college, a text left unread, a severed relationship. The sinking feeling that follows is all too familiar and equally disconcerting.

But has the feeling of rejection ever led you to feel actual pain? Has heartbreak ever felt like your heart was actually breaking?

What happens when this pain won’t go away, when it takes over your life and keeps you from going about your everyday tasks?

Rejection, loss, social isolation, and abandonment can be distressing to us all. But in many, it can manifest into, what researchers call, ‘social pain.’

What exactly is social pain? Is it ‘real’ pain? How can one cope with it?

FIT breaks it down for you.

Like physical pain, social pain can also be very palpable, and it can be just as damaging.
Like physical pain, social pain can also be very palpable, and it can be just as damaging.
(photo: iStock)

What Is Social Pain?

“Social pains typically are seen to be the result of interpersonal loss or rejection,” explains Dr Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Head, Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare.

It can result from the hurt one feels at being left out or excluded by others, ostracised, bullied, or at the loss of a loved one.

Like physical pain, social pain can also be very palpable, and it can be just as damaging.

A number of studies suggest that the same neural regions that are involved in physical pain are involved in social pain. Because of this close link, emotional pain appears to mimic certain aspects of physical pain in terms of brain activity and pain perception.

What this means is that in some people, social rejection elicits similar activation in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. Further, a greater sensitivity to social pain is associated with greater sensitivity to physical pain.

So, yes, the pain one experiences as a result of social distress is very much real. And while it may sound unsettling, for many, having their anguish scientifically validated instead of dismissed as something that's ‘just in your head’, can be a source of comfort.

How long Does It Last?

Depending on the severity of the trauma and your ability to process it, social pain can be very temporary; a momentary discomfort that ebbs as your brain rationalises the situation.

Or, it can persist. Sometimes for years.

When N (who wishes to remain anonymous) was just a young girl of 6, she was bullied by other kids in the colony. They made fun of her for her southern roots, made up games to deliberately exclude her, and laughed at her uneasiness.

Rejection and ‘othering’ by peer groups can lead to persistent  social pains.
Rejection and ‘othering’ by peer groups can lead to persistent social pains.
(photo: iStock)

Now grown up and a psychologist herself, N is still living with the pain that the vestiges of those memories carry.

“Passing by my old colony, I sometimes catch glimpses of my bullies,” she says. “It plunges me right back to those moments.”

For N, making new friends is an ordeal, and social interactions are fraught with bouts of flashbacks of the episodes that bring back the pain and anxiety her younger self-experienced.

Those who have experienced grave loss and social isolation experience this pain in bouts, their bodies strongly reacting to even minor instances of rejection, loss, and social disconnection.

Social Pain When Social Distancing

Social rejection can be distressing in its self. Throw into the mix a pandemic that forces you to isolate —where your only window into the world is a digital one—and top it off with political unrest the world over. What you get is a recipe for all kinds of stress and anxieties.

With global and local crises stacking up like a precariously swaying Jenga tower in the past year, and the lack of a sense of community, it comes as no surprise that a study conducted by the University of Sao Paulo shows a spike in cases of social pain during the pandemic.

Prolonged social isolation is known to often lead to various mental illnesses.
Prolonged social isolation is known to often lead to various mental illnesses.
(photo: iStock)

Social isolation has historically been used as a form of punishment. The reason being that curbing of human contact has been known to have a severe negative impact on one’s mental state.

Prolonged social isolation is known to often lead to certain mental illnesses such as depression, permanent or semi-permanent changes to brain physiology, existential crises, and even death.

In March last year, however, people considered to be of sound minds and bodies were suddenly obligated to socially isolate themselves inside their homes, or even in places far from their familiar homes. Not to mention the sudden curb of traditional social events.

The strong emotions associated with the threat of social disconnection can often be the driving force behind people flouting COVID regulations.

‘All you have to do is stay indoors, and avoid social events,’ sounds simple enough. And yet, a few months into the lockdown saw people violating social distancing regulations for seemingly frivolous activities and gatherings.

One reason for this can be that the fear of missing out and losing social connection is so strong that it often overrides the instinct to stay safe and protect oneself.

The fears and uncertainties that loom over a pandemic-struck-world aside, the year has also brought heavy losses in life, not to mention the physical —and often mental— inability to properly process grief.

Not being able to attend funerals, being states away from ageing and ailing parents, not being able to partake in community celebrations like weddings and birthdays, can leave a person with anything from temporary distress to post-traumatic stress disorder in the future, suggests the study.

“During the pandemic, many people have encountered loss and have also experienced distancing from their loved ones,” explains Dr Chhibber, “relationships have had an impact as well and these have certainly affected the concerned individuals.”

How Do You Cope With It?

The distress of social pain can be just as noxious as any physical pain, but there are ways to curb it from disrupting your everyday life.

  • Let it out.

For one, Dr Kamna Chhibber suggests talking about it.

Unlike its physical counterpart, mental distress and pain are often seen as something that warrants hiding, something to be fought in silence.

But according to Dr Chhibber, “discussing and sharing these difficult experiences can go a long way in helping regulate the emotional distress that you might be experiencing.”

“Trying to reach out and find spaces where you can get social support is always helpful.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber
Make healthy use of social media and technology to mindfully connect with your loved ones.
Make healthy use of social media and technology to mindfully connect with your loved ones.
(photo: iStock)
  • Stay apart but connected

Months of social disconnection and aloneness can turn a person complacent to their situation. With the barrage of negative emotions one experiences, it can be easy to just give in, to withdraw into oneself and drift further and further away from those around us.

Dr Chhiber advised being mindful of your relations and making the effort to maintain them.

“ It is important that in order to cope with something like this you try to ensure that you consciously do not disconnect from the social setting you are a part of.”
Dr Kamna Chhibber

Instead of doomscrolling through social media, use your phone to mindfully connect and keep up with people — Facetime them, give them a call, or start an email correspondence.

  • Keep up the self care

It is also important to keep engaging in self-care by indulging in activities that are relaxing and rejuvenating. Exercise, listen to music, cook, paint, partake in hobbies and activities that boost your endorphins.

“Be kind and compassionate towards your own self and allow yourself to go through the emotional experience of the situation you might be facing,” says Dr Kamna Chhibber.

  • Talk to a professional

According to Dr Chhibber, “If a person’s functionality in their life is getting affected because of the experience of loss or rejection in a social setting then it is a cause of concern and can warrant intervention.”

One of the few bright spots of the lockdown has been the easier access to many services, no longer bound by physical constraints. Among other things, the collective shift to digital platforms has brought about a surge in the availability of mental health facilities, counsellors, and therapists.

A counsellor or a therapist could help you make sense of your pain and strategise a way to properly deal with it.

It is normal for rejection, disconnection, and feelings of abandonment to hurt—more so to feel overwhelmed by these feelings in the situation we’re in. But if the pain persists for days or weeks and keeping you from functioning normally, it’s best to get professional help.

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