The Big Hurt

Article excerpt

Sticks and stones can break my bones; rejection hurts everything else

"Heartache" may be more than just a metaphor. People feel the pain of rejection, exclusion, and loss with some of the same physiological machinery that they use to feel the pain of touching a hot stove, report researchers Geoff MacDonald of the University of Queensland and Mark R. Leary of Wake Forest University. As a result, says MacDonald, "Feeling socially supported is crucial not just to mental health, but also to physical health."

People with AIDS, for example, not only have to deal with the physical pain caused by the disease, but also the social pain caused by its stigma. Lessening their isolation can make a big difference to patients' physical health. "I have seen people start to carry their bodies differently, say they feel physically better, and report that they have more energy after attending a support group for several months," says Mickie Robbins, program manager of mental health services at AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Physical and social pain don't follow the exact same circuitry. Instead, what they have in common is how we feel about them: The emotional experience of physical pain and the emotional experience of social exclusion travel the same wires. A part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex processes the unpleasantness of physical pain. In functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, that very part also lights up when you're playing computer-simulated catch but no one will throw you the ball.

In their article published in the March issue of Psychological Bulletin, the researchers also report animal studies showing the social-physical pain connection (yes, rats feel social pain, too). A rat pup crying for its mother uses the same part of the brain that it uses to process physical pain. …