Why social rejection is more painful to some people

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When bad things happen, like a tough breakup or an embarrassing moment, it’s common for people to keep thinking about it. But for some, especially those who dwell on these thoughts too much, this can lead to mental health issues.

A team from the University of California, Davis, Center for Mind and Brain conducted a study focusing on how teenage girls process social rejection.

Published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, the research uncovers the brain activities linked to these experiences.

Amanda Guyer, the study’s lead and a professor at UC Davis, explained that while everyone faces rejection, not everyone reacts the same way. Their goal was to understand the brain’s role in these differences, to help people cope better.

To study this, 116 girls aged 16 to 19 participated in an experiment involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a tool that tracks changes in blood flow and brain activity.

The girls first picked out teens they’d like to chat with from a set of photos. Later, inside an fMRI scanner, they were told which of these teens wanted or didn’t want to chat with them. This set-up simulated social rejection.

The brain scans showed that rejection activates certain areas of the brain associated with self-perception. These areas become more active, indicated by increased blood flow and electrical activity, when we think about ourselves or recall memories.

The girls who reported a habit of ruminating, or overthinking, showed higher activity in these brain areas.

Guyer pointed out that these girls are not just feeling momentarily sad after rejection; they’re incorporating this negativity into their self-image.

This insight is crucial because it helps identify specific brain processes linked to rumination after rejection. Understanding this can lead to better ways to treat rumination, potentially preventing larger mental health issues.

The study suggests the importance of teaching girls to reframe negative experiences positively. This approach could help them feel better after such incidents, instead of worse.

The research, carried out between 2012 and 2014, with analysis in 2023 using new methods, was a collaboration among researchers from UC Davis, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pittsburgh.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about how dairy foods may influence depression risk, and B vitamins could help prevent depression and anxiety.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and extra-virgin olive oil could reduce depression symptoms.

The research findings can be found in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

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