Why do we say love hurts

Social pain: why lovesickness hurts so much

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As part of a research project at the Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the Ulm University Hospital, the author analyzed why rejection is actually physically painful.

Photos: Anetlanda iStockphoto; Igor Serazetdinov / stock.adobe.com

Pain?! Everyone knows that. Everyone knows how much it can hurt when something "hurts". And everyone apparently knows what to do when there is acute pain, i.e. physically. This is what mothers teach us with their home remedies. And first of all, of course, there is the aspect of remedial action by trying to shut down the source of the pain.

But what about "social pain"? What exactly is “social pain” and how do you feel about it? Well, there are different ways to describe such pain. On the one hand, social pain is the typical "heartache". But there are also other situations in which one experiences social rejection. Social pain also arises when someone close to you dies. In short: social pain is when one's heart “breaks”, metaphorically speaking - and that, as is well known, can be very painful.

But what exactly happens in us when we experience such pain? As an emotion, pain causes a stressful situation in us, blood pressure and pulse rise, adrenaline is released and we prepare for "flight or fight". It is similar with social pain. Here we find ourselves in a similar “fighting situation” in which we have to react. Now begins a process in which we try to classify this pain. We would like to find out how we can deal with it better next time, that is to say, reevaluate it. In terms of physical pain, this means that if I touch a hot stove, I don't do it a second time, at least not necessarily. It's the same with social pain: the next time I experience rejection, I try to get around it and find strategies to implement it.

This connection has been confirmed in various studies. A study by Naomi Eisenberger et al. (1) has shown, for example, that social rejection activates predominantly the same areas in the brain as is the case with physical pain (2–4). To do this, she subjected test subjects who had voluntarily agreed to do so in an MRT scan to a social rejection paradigm by not letting them pass the ball in an interactive ball game. The social exclusion created in this way led to the activation of a brain area, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is primarily responsible for emotions, pain and learning. This is where the interpretation of the situation takes place and you feel left out. Since the physical pain is also interpreted in that area, there is now an overlap between the two forms of pain. The social pain "hurts". This also means that people who feel left out for a long time have a lower pain threshold for physical pain than those who do not.

What do you do when you feel pain, especially physical pain, when mom's home remedies no longer help? You take a pain reliever to at least relieve the pain. Another study by Nathan Dewall et al. also shown for social pain: Here test subjects were given acetaminophen - also known as paracetamol - for a certain period of time and then also subjected to an MRI scan, during which they were also exposed to a social game of exclusion.

The results were astonishing: it was found that the areas in the brain in the control subjects were much more active than in those who had taken acetaminophen (5). This also shows a connection between the physical and social pain system, both of which, however, can also be suppressed and thus social pain is perceived differently. Here it is left to research to find out how to take advantage of this (6).

In summary, however, one can say that pain, no matter in which way, in too long a duration or intensity, is not good. It does help us to find our way in a social environment that is not always inclined, or to classify physical injury as a warning signal and then, at best, to act in a forward-looking manner. On the other hand, perhaps the well-known saying “alea dosis facit venenum” applies here - only the dose makes the poison. This applies to physical, psychological and social pain experience. ■

Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD, Williams KD: Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion.
Science (New York, NY). 2003; 302 (5643): 290-2.
Eisenberger NI: The neural bases of social pain: evidence for shared representations with physical pain.
Psychosomatic medicine. 2012; 74 (2): 126-35.
Eisenberger NI: The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and
social pain. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2012; 13 (6): 421-34.
Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD: Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in cognitive sciences. 2004; 8 (7): 294-300.
Dewall CN, Macdonald G, Webster GD, Masten CL, Baumeister RF, Powell C, et al .: Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological science. 2010; 21 (7): 931-7.
Eisenberger NI .: Social pain and the brain: controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology. 2015; 66: 601-29.
1.Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD, Williams KD: Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion.
Science (New York, NY). 2003; 302 (5643): 290-2.
2.Eisenberger NI: The neural bases of social pain: evidence for shared representations with physical pain.
Psychosomatic medicine. 2012; 74 (2): 126-35.
3.Eisenberger NI: The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and
social pain. Nature reviews Neuroscience. 2012; 13 (6): 421-34.
4.Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD: Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in cognitive sciences. 2004; 8 (7): 294-300.
5.Dewall CN, Macdonald G, Webster GD, Masten CL, Baumeister RF, Powell C, et al .: Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological science. 2010; 21 (7): 931-7.
6.Eisenberger NI .: Social pain and the brain: controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology. 2015; 66: 601-29.
Social pain: why lovesickness hurts so much

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