Understanding Rejection: How to Mitigate Its Effect On the Brain

6 ways to bounce back—whether it is at the hands of your boss or your date.

Your boss shoots down your proposal. The girl at happy hour declines your offer to buy her a drink. Your co-workers all go out to lunch—and don’t invite you to come along. You’re dumped by your significant other (a week before Valentine’s day nonetheless).

Rejection is all around us.

And it has a huge impact on our emotional and physical health. According to a review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, it not only increases negative emotions like anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness, but it reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control. Physical ramifications include negative affects on sleep quality and immune system function. It can even temporarily lower your IQ, increase aggression, and make you more likely to cheat, procrastinate, and choose less healthy behaviors.

“Becoming upset in reaction to rejection requires subscribing to what I call ‘contingent self-worth’: a set of rules about the conditions that we can be okay with,” said Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., author of Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now and the Awakened Introvert. “For example, ‘I can be okay if everyone likes me; I am a good person if I don’t fail’; Every rule makes us vulnerable to rejections, disappointments, and losses. We live in a culture where our wellbeing is almost always linked to how much material stuff we have, how much other people like us, and other measures of status. So, when I say ‘subscribing’ it’s not necessarily a conscious process; the linkages are deeply embedded in our psyches (like asking a fish, what is water?).”

The Pain is Real

There’s no contest that we are deeply affected by rejection, but how exactly does the brain register it? Researchers used MRIs to look at the brain activity of those who were excluded from a game of Frisbee. The study, published in Science, determined that social rejection activated the same regions of the brain as physical pain. And a study published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that in response, the brain’s natural painkiller system is activated. The researchers simulated online dating by having participants view personal profiles and select the ones they were romantically interested in—and then shot down their dreams of true love by telling them the people they selected weren’t interested in them. Brain scans made during this moment showed opioid release, which plays a role in both reducing pain and promoting pleasure.

C. Nathan DeWall, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, and his colleagues took it one step further, posing the question: if rejection causes a similar physical pain to say, a headache, can it be treated the same? According to their findings, the answer is yes. They assigned volunteers to take over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a placebo and found that those who took the drug recounted fewer episodes of hurt feelings in daily self-reports and showed less activity in the pain-related regions of the brain in MRI scans.

Turns out that how the brain registers a figurative broken heart isn’t so different from the pain registered from a literal broken bone.

“Instead of creating an entirely new system to respond to socially painful events, evolution simply co-opted the system for physical pain,” DeWall told the American Psychological Association.

How Hard Does Rejection Hit You?

Whether it’s being passed over for a job you really wanted or being dumped by a romantic interest, being told “no” is never fun.

But did you ever wonder why it is that some people can bounce back almost immediately, seemingly unaffected by the experience, while others perseverate on the encounter for days, overanalyzing it in search of what they could have done differently?

“The level of sensitivity to rejection, in my experience, is directly proportional to the level of independence someone has achieved in their lives,” said Larry Shushansky, Rhode Island-based psychotherapist and licensed social worker. “The more independent a person is the less sensitive they are. The more dependent they are on others for their well being the more sensitive they will be.”

The same person may even experience varying responses to rejection across different areas of their lives: from friends and family, to co-workers, to the stranger at the bar who was not feeling your advances.

“Because sensitivity correlates to dependency, people generally do respond to rejection across different areas of their lives differently,” said Shushansky. He organizes relationships into a series of concentric circles: the smaller, center circle being close family members; the next larger circle out may be friends and acquaintances; the next may represent work and colleagues. Finally, the outside circle might be strangers, people working in stores, municipal workers, etc. “You’ll be prone to being more reactive to rejection the closer your relationship is to the center circle, with the outside circle being the least reactive you’ll be,” he said. “The idea is that the less you rely on someone, the less reactive you’ll be to rejection. Having said that, for most of us rejection never goes away entirely. We may not be aware of it, but because all relationships have some form of dependency attached to them, there’s going to be some form of reaction to rejection.”

Which may explain why you can rebound instantaneously when your boss shoots down an idea, but have a much harder time bouncing back from being dumped by a romantic interest. “Someone may be robust in the work arena in a way that they are not with relationships because of certain experiences from earlier in life,” said Kozak. “It always depends on what the person perceives is on the line. Different domains of life may be seen as more or less threatening to their sense of value, wellbeing, or worth.”

After the initial sting of rejection most people move into an “appraisal stage,” in which they take stock and formulate their next steps, said Kipling Williams, PhD, co-author of the study that revealed how rejection emulates physical pain. “We think all forms of ostracism are immediately painful,” he said. “What differs is how long it takes to recover, and how one deals with the recovery.”

The study that delved into the brain’s natural painkiller system, also found that those who scored high on the personality trait resilience (defined as the ability to adjust to environmental change) showed the highest amount of natural painkiller activation. “Individuals who scored high for the resiliency trait on a personality questionnaire tended to be capable of more opioid release during social rejection, especially in the amygdala,” a region of the brain involved in emotional processing, said David T. Hsu, Ph.D., the lead author of the paper. “This suggests that opioid release in this structure during social rejection may be protective or adaptive.” 

6 Ways to Bounce Back from Rejection

So it’s clear that your brain is working overtime to try and help you bounce back from the sting of rejection. But there are also conscious efforts you can make to boost your resiliency in these situations.

  1. Practice being rejected. It’s arguable that improving any skill, even coping with rejection, is a matter of practice. So Jia Jiang, author of Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection, did just that. After being crippled by an investor saying “no” to financing his company, a google search led him to the idea of rejection therapy. For 100 days, he deliberately went out and looked for rejection by making ridiculous requests of strangers (one day he asked the cashier at a burger joint for a “burger refill” instead of a “drink refill,” another he showed up at a random apartment and asked to join a party). After hearing “no” over and over and over again, he didn’t feel like a loser. Instead, he recognized rejection as a constant and something that can make you better, beginning to feel the way you might after losing a video game: shrug and try again. “Had I not put myelf out there constantly, I wouldn’t have learned these two things: One, If I open up myself to the world, the world will open up to me. And two, rejection is constant and can be painful, but it also can be very delicious and useful.”
  1. Re-define how you define yourself. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked at the relationship between rejection and a person’s sense of self. They found that people differ in whether and how they connect romantic rejections to their self, and that people with a fixed mindset about their personality—those who believe that their personality is simply fixed and unchangeable—allow romantic rejections to linger longer in their lives. “To them, a rejection reveals that it is fixed at a deficient level. On the other hand, people who believe in their ability to grow and develop, while of course hurt by rejections, can more readily bounce back and envision a brighter future,” said Carol Dweck, professor of psychology and co-author of the study. Working to stop viewing romantic partners as a “source of information about the self,” will prevent rejection from feeling like a revelation of a core truth about yourself, making them it less likely you will struggle with recovery and let that rejection affect future relationships.
  2. Change your perspective. Don’t let one circumstance alter your entire mindset. Yes, you didn’t get the job, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t skilled or a valuable employee. “For people who are greatly affected by rejection (as a matter of fact, for anyone who is taking things personally and being reactive to behaviors that may be construed as rejecting) the way to work on bouncing back is to take a psychological step back from the person they are feeling rejected by, then try to get the thoughts that follow the feelings of rejection out of your head.”
  3. Practice mindfulness. A tangible way to change your perspective is to practice mindfulness. “This is the principle means that I use to break contingencies in my psychotherapy patients. The more aware we are of how we react to situations will give us options on how to respond differently,” said Arnie Kozak, Ph.D., author of Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now and the Awakened Introvert. “It’s helpful to ask yourself, ‘what’s really on the line here?’ You can then see if your sense of okay-ness is really undermined by the rejection. Often, we worry how we’ll be perceived by others and that is just another contingency. Rejections aren’t the end of the world, but sometimes we can react as if they are. Being turned away from one opportunity makes you available for another. Ultimately, I encourage people not to take things so seriously. If that reaction arises, mindfulness practice can help people to back away from it and keep things in perspective.”
  4. Seek out healthy, positive connections with others. Being excluded hurts for a reason, humans are social creatures, and we wouldn’t have survived as solitary beings. So researchers extrapolate this may be why we’re wired to feel pain when we are rejected; in a way, it’s threatening our existence. But, this is where perspective comes back into play. One instance of rejection isn’t indicative of your entire social sphere or relationship map. Make an effort to reach out to friends, family, and any other support system you have to reaffirm your positive relationships. These positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, and will have you completely forgetting about being burned by your co-worker.
  5. Reassert your independence. This is especially important if you experience rejection from someone you interact with on a daily basis, say your boss, a co-worker, or a close friend.Work on strengthening yourself and becoming more independent from that person,” said Shushansky. “Not necessarily cutting off, or becoming totally free and independent from that person, but becoming independent enough so you can step back in the relationship with more confidence, assuredness, and sense of self.”