The article was last updated by Samantha Choi on January 30, 2024.

Social pain is a concept that has gained increasing attention in the field of psychology. It refers to the emotional distress and suffering that arises from negative social experiences, such as rejection, social exclusion, bullying, and betrayal.

In this article, we will explore the causes and effects of social pain, as well as how it differs from physical pain. We will also discuss the various methods used to measure social pain and the strategies that can be employed to manage it, including social support, therapy, mindfulness practices, and medication.

If you’ve ever wondered about the impact of social experiences on our well-being, this article is a must-read.

What Is Social Pain?

Social pain refers to the psychological distress experienced as a result of negative social experiences, such as rejection, exclusion, or betrayal, and involves neural circuitry encompassing the dACC and anterior insula.

Research has shown that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) plays a crucial role in processing the emotional and cognitive components of social pain, while the anterior insula is involved in the subjective experience of this distress.

These neural regions are activated in response to social rejection and exclusion, highlighting the neural underpinnings of social pain. Emotional experiences, such as empathic responses to others’ pain or social support, can modulate the impact of social pain on an individual’s well-being, offering insights into the varied factors that influence social pain experiences.

How Is Social Pain Different from Physical Pain?

Social pain and physical pain differ in their eliciting stimuli, the subjective unpleasantness experienced, and the involvement of the sensory component of pain, distinct from the opioid-related responses seen in physical pain.

Social pain, primarily stemming from social rejection, exclusion, or loss, activates specific brain regions associated with emotional and psychological distress. Conversely, physical pain results from the stimulation of nociceptors in response to tissue damage or injury, with somatic and neural pathways conveying the sensation to the brain.

The sensory experience of social pain has been linked to the affective and cognitive neural networks, leading to feelings of loneliness, heartache, and emotional anguish. In contrast, physical pain is characterized by the transmission of nociceptive signals, leading to localized discomfort, inflammation, and somatic responses, distinct from the psychological impact of social pain.

The subjective unpleasantness experienced in social pain is often rooted in emotional distress and cognitive interpretations, whereas physical pain is primarily associated with the nociceptive signal intensity and the physiological impact on the body.

What Are the Causes of Social Pain?

The causes of social pain encompass experiences of rejection, leading to emotional distress and heightened neural activity in affected individuals, often overlapping with psychological and cognitive models of distress.

Rejection plays a significant role in triggering social pain, as individuals who experience rejection often undergo a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, and a profound sense of being unwanted or unvalued. This emotional distress can be deeply impactful, affecting an individual’s overall mental and emotional well-being.

Studies have shown that rejection is associated with increased neural activity in brain regions related to emotional processing and pain perception, further underlining the neural activity component of social pain.

Social pain exhibits a notable overlap with psychological and cognitive models of distress, indicating that it is not just a physical response but also a complex psychological phenomenon. This overlap is evidenced by the cognitive processes involved in processing rejection, such as rumination and negative thought patterns, which align with psychological models of distress. The integration of these various facets provides a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted nature of social pain.


Rejection can trigger profound social pain in individuals, evoking feelings of exclusion and a fundamental need to belong, contributing to distressing emotional experiences.

This intense emotional suffering, arising from the sense of being unwanted or unaccepted, can lead to a range of adverse psychological effects, including lowered self-esteem, increased anxiety, and depression.

The impact of rejection can be pervasive, extending beyond individual distress to affect social interactions, communal cohesion, and overall well-being. Individuals experiencing rejection may internalize negative beliefs about themselves, leading to a persistent sense of inadequacy and unworthiness.

Social Exclusion

Social exclusion has been linked to profound distress and neural responses akin to social pain, with studies highlighting overlapping opioid-related mechanisms in understanding its impact on individuals.

Research has shown that the neural responses to social exclusion involve the same regions of the brain that process physical pain, which indicates how deeply it can affect an individual.

The distress caused by social exclusion activates the brain’s opioid system, specifically the μ-opioid receptors, contributing to the intense emotional suffering experienced by those who are excluded.


Bullying can instigate social pain through psychological and inflammatory mechanisms, impacting individuals’ behaviors and emotional well-being in detrimental ways.

Psychologically, victims of bullying often experience feelings of inferiority, fear, and anxiety, which can lead to lasting emotional scars. These feelings can have a profound impact on a person’s mental well-being and self-esteem.

The inflammatory response to stress induced by bullying can also have negative effects on the body. Increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, can compromise the immune system and contribute to various health issues. This can further exacerbate the negative effects of bullying on a person’s physical and mental health.

Because of these psychological and physiological effects, victims of bullying may exhibit behaviors such as withdrawal, aggression, or self-harm. These behaviors can perpetuate the cycle of social pain and make it difficult for victims to break free from the negative effects of bullying.


Betrayal can evoke profound social pain, triggering distress vocalizations and affective responses akin to separation distress seen in mammals and human beings.

This emotional experience often stems from a breach of trust or disloyalty, causing individuals to feel deeply hurt and resentful.

Affective distress may manifest in various forms, such as depression, anger, or anxiety, while distress vocalizations could include crying, yelling, or sobbing.

In both human and mammalian context, the impact of betrayal can extend beyond the immediate emotional response, influencing future relationships, social bonding, and overall well-being.

What Are the Effects of Social Pain?

Social pain can lead to emotional distress, manifesting in physical symptoms, changes in behavior, and substantial impact on mental health and well-being.

When individuals experience social pain, it can trigger a range of emotional responses, such as sadness, loneliness, and anxiety. These emotional distresses may be accompanied by physical manifestations like headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue, highlighting the intricate link between emotional and physical well-being.

The impact of social pain is not confined to internal experiences; it can also induce changes in behavioral patterns, leading to withdrawal from social activities, reduced motivation, and altered interpersonal relationships. Such behavioral changes reflect the pervasive nature of social pain and its far-reaching consequences.

Emotional Distress

Social pain often results in profound emotional distress, influencing individuals’ experiences in social interactions and contributing to negative psychological outcomes.

The experience of social pain can lead to feelings of loneliness, rejection, and a sense of not belonging, all of which can deeply impact a person’s well-being and mental health.

Negative social experiences can cause anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, further exacerbating the individual’s emotional distress. These psychological implications may manifest in avoidance of social situations, difficulty in forming new relationships, and a heightened sensitivity to rejection.

Physical Symptoms

Social pain has been associated with inflammatory responses and evidence of physical symptoms, highlighting the interconnected mechanisms between psychological distress and physiological manifestations.

Studies have shown that individuals experiencing social pain may exhibit a range of physical symptoms, including increased inflammation markers such as interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. These inflammatory responses can contribute to a variety of health issues, such as cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal problems, and compromised immune function.

Research suggests that the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system plays a key role in the manifestation of physical symptoms in response to social pain. The release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, can influence immune function, leading to increased susceptibility to infections and prolonged inflammatory states.

Changes in Behavior

Social pain can prompt significant changes in behavior as individuals adapt to the distressing experiences, as evidenced by studies examining human responses to social pain and the subsequent adaptive behaviors.

When individuals experience social pain, it can lead to a range of behavioral modifications aimed at coping with or alleviating the distress.

The adaptation to social pain may manifest in various ways, including changes in social interaction patterns, emotional regulation, and cognitive processing. These alterations can be seen as adaptive responses to the challenges posed by social pain.

Researchers have identified that the integration of new coping mechanisms and the development of resilience are vital components of adaptive behaviors in the context of social pain.

Impact on Mental Health

Social pain has a profound impact on mental health, influencing neural responses, distress levels, and the fundamental need to belong, encompassing a wide range of psychological implications.

Research suggests that the experience of social exclusion can activate neural circuits associated with physical pain, highlighting the magnitude of its impact on the brain.

The neurological response to social pain can lead to increased stress and anxiety, contributing to heightened distress levels.

The innate human desire to belong and connect with others underscores the significant emotional and psychological consequences of social rejection.

How Is Social Pain Measured?

Social pain is measured through various methods, including self-report measures, neuroimaging techniques, and behavioral assessments, enabling a comprehensive understanding of its psychological and neural underpinnings.

Self-report measures are commonly used in the assessment of social pain, allowing individuals to articulate their emotional experiences and the intensity of their distress. These measures often utilize Likert scales or visual analog scales to quantify subjective feelings of social exclusion, rejection, or loneliness.

On the other hand, neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), provide objective insights into the neural correlates of social pain, elucidating the brain regions involved in processing social distress.

Behavioral assessments play a crucial role in the measurement of social pain, observing individuals’ responses to social exclusion paradigms or interpersonal challenges. These assessments can capture physiological changes, facial expressions, and social behaviors that manifest in the presence of social pain, offering valuable behavioral markers for researchers and clinicians.

Self-Report Measures

Self-report measures offer insights into individuals’ experiences of social pain, capturing their feelings and emotional responses in controlled study settings, providing valuable subjective data.

These measures are designed to assess the subjective experiences of individuals, especially in the context of social rejection, ostracism, or exclusion.

Through self-report measures, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the emotional and psychological impact of social pain on individuals. This can include capturing the intensity of negative emotions such as sadness, hurt, and loneliness, as well as the duration and frequency of these feelings in response to specific social interactions or situations.

Neuroimaging Techniques

Neuroimaging techniques offer valuable insights into the neural responses associated with social pain, providing evidence of the underlying mechanisms and their impact on individuals’ psychological well-being.

These techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), allow researchers to observe brain activity as individuals experience social exclusion or rejection.

Through these observations, patterns of activation in specific regions of the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, have been consistently linked to social pain.

Neuroimaging research has demonstrated that the neural responses to social pain parallel those involved in physical pain, indicating the significance of these experiences on a psychological and physiological level.

Behavioral Measures

Behavioral measures are utilized to gauge the impact of social pain on distress, neural activity, and the provision of support, contributing to the development of comprehensive models to understand its psychological effects.

Research on social pain has increasingly shifted towards incorporating behavioral measures as part of the assessment toolkit. Distress, one of the key components, is often measured using self-report scales, observable behaviors, and physiological indicators such as heart rate and cortisol levels.

Neural activity related to social pain can be assessed through neuroimaging techniques like fMRI or EEG, providing valuable insights into the underlying brain mechanisms. The assessment of support involves examining social network size, quality of relationships, and perceived social support, forming a holistic approach to understanding the impact of social pain.

How Can Social Pain Be Managed?

Managing social pain involves various approaches, including seeking social support, engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy, practicing mindfulness, and in certain cases, utilizing medication to alleviate distress and promote well-being.

Social support can play a crucial role in helping individuals cope with social pain, as it provides them with a sense of belonging, empathy, and understanding.

Cognitive behavioral therapy offers effective techniques to challenge negative thought patterns and develop coping skills, promoting emotional resilience.

Practicing mindfulness through meditation and self-awareness exercises can aid in reducing emotional reactivity and enhancing emotional regulation, contributing to managing social pain successfully.

For individuals experiencing severe distress, certain medications can be prescribed under the guidance of mental health professionals to alleviate symptoms and support overall well-being.

Social Support

Social support plays a critical role in managing social pain, offering avenues to address distress, modulate neural activity, and develop supportive models for individuals in need.

Social pain, often stemming from various challenging social experiences, generates significant distress, impacting mental well-being. In such circumstances, social support becomes an invaluable resource, providing solace and understanding, ultimately contributing to the alleviation of distress.

It has been observed that the presence of social support can modulate neural activity, influencing the processing of social pain and aiding in the regulation of emotional responses. The development and implementation of supportive models, including community-based programs and peer support networks, further highlight the significance of fostering a supportive environment to address social pain.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is employed to address the negative behavioral adaptations stemming from social pain, facilitating psychological adaptation and the development of effective coping strategies.

In the context of social pain, individuals may exhibit maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance, aggression, or substance abuse as a way to cope with the distress.

Cognitive behavioral therapy targets these negative patterns by identifying the underlying thought processes and beliefs that contribute to such behaviors. Through this process, individuals gain insight into their maladaptive responses and learn to modify them.

Additionally, behavioral interventions in CBT help individuals develop healthy coping strategies and adaptive behaviors to manage social pain more effectively.

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness practices offer evidence-based approaches to address the distress and neural activity associated with social pain, promoting emotional well-being and psychological resilience.

Research suggests that engaging in mindfulness practices can significantly reduce the psychological impact of social pain.

By deliberately focusing on the present moment and accepting one’s emotions without judgment, individuals may experience a decrease in rumination and emotional reactivity, leading to a more adaptive response to social stressors.

Furthermore, neural imaging studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can modulate brain activity in regions associated with emotional regulation and empathic responses, providing insight into the neurological mechanisms underlying its beneficial effects on emotional well-being.


In some cases, medication is utilized to address chronic social pain, targeting neural responses and providing necessary support, akin to approaches utilized in managing chronic physical pain.

Medication interventions in chronic pain management play a crucial role in addressing the multifaceted nature of social pain. Various classes of medications, such as opioids, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety drugs, can modulate neural pathways, influencing the perception and processing of social distress.

Within the realm of chronic pain relief, opioids have been a topic of significant interest and debate. While they can effectively alleviate social pain, their potential for dependence and misuse necessitates careful consideration and monitoring in treatment plans.

The integration of medication needs to be part of a comprehensive approach that includes psychological and social support for individuals grappling with persistent social pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is social pain in psychology?

Social pain in psychology refers to the emotional and psychological distress experienced as a result of social rejection, exclusion, or loss of social connection with others.

How is social pain different from physical pain?

While physical pain is a response to physical harm or injury, social pain is a psychological response to social rejection or exclusion. It is primarily an emotional and cognitive experience rather than a physical one.

What are the potential causes of social pain?

Social pain can be caused by various factors, such as rejection, exclusion, loss of a social relationship, or feelings of loneliness or isolation. It can also be triggered by social comparison, feelings of inadequacy, or betrayal.

How does social pain impact an individual’s mental health?

Social pain can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health, leading to symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and even suicidal thoughts. It can also affect one’s overall well-being, relationships, and social functioning.

Can social pain be treated?

Yes, social pain can be treated through various therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and group therapy. These approaches focus on addressing the underlying psychological factors contributing to social pain and developing coping strategies to manage its effects.

What are some ways to cope with social pain?

Some ways to cope with social pain include developing a support system, practicing self-care, engaging in hobbies or activities that bring joy, seeking professional help, and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself. It is also essential to address any underlying issues that may be contributing to social pain.

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