Hurt Feelings Can Hurt the Heart

Study Shows Social Rejection Has an Impact on Your Heart Rate

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 29, 2010 -- Social rejection doesn’t just feel heartbreaking, it makes your heart rate drop, a new study shows.

Scientists in the Netherlands say the disappointment of feeling you’re not liked can cause the heart rate to slow for a moment, or even longer.

The bottom line: Feeling as if you’ve been rejected can cause both psychological and physical reactions.

The research suggests that the autonomic nervous system, which controls such functions as circulation and digestion, also gets involved when people feel they’ve been socially rejected.

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam and Leiden University enlisted a group of 27 volunteers -- 18 women and nine men -- to take part in experiments and were first asked to send the scientists a photograph of themselves.

They were told that the study was on first impressions, and that students at another university would look at the photos to decide whether they liked the volunteers, based on a glance at the picture. But this was a ruse.

Later, each volunteer visited a laboratory and had wires hooked up to their chests for an electrocardiogram. Then the volunteers looked at a series of unfamiliar faces -- actual students from another university.

Rejection and Your Heart

Volunteers were asked to guess whether the student in the pictures they viewed liked them. And then the volunteers were told whether the person in the photo “liked” them or not -- although this response was actually computer generated.

Researchers say each volunteer’s heart rate fell in anticipation of a person’s opinion of them. And heart rate also was affected after they were told the other person’s opinion.

If told the other student didn’t like them, the heart rate dropped further and took longer to get back to normal. Heart rates slowed more in people who were surprised because they’d expected that the other person seeing their photo would like them.

“Unexpected social rejection could literally feel ‘heartbreaking,’ as reflected by a transient slowing of a heart rate,” the researchers write.

Previous research has shown that the brain processes social and physical pain in the same regions, and researchers wanted to find out if social pain caused physical reactions. And it did.


“Our results reveal that the processing of unexpected social rejection is associated with a sizable response of the parasympathetic nervous system,” the researchers write.

As background, they note that people are strongly motivated to gain social acceptance, and thus are highly sensitive to rejection. Social rejection, they say, has been implicated in a variety of psychological disorders.

“We found that the cardiac response to unexpected social rejection was considerably larger than heart rate changes associated with expected social rejection,” the researchers write. “This finding may also suggest that negative feelings associated with being socially rejected are reduced substantially when negative peer evaluation is anticipated.”

From an evolutionary perspective, the findings support the notion that humans are strongly motivated to feel they are liked or that they belong, the researchers say.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 29, 2010



News release, Psychological Science.

Moor, B. Psychological Science, September 2010.

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