Anyone who has ever been socially rejected or had their heart broken knows that it really hurts.  And now, researchers at UCLA have discovered evidence of a biological basis for this pain.  It appears that people with a variation of a specific gene are not just more sensitive to physical pain, but also more sensitive to social pain.

Researchers already knew from previous studies that the gene, called OPRM1, regulates the body’s internal painkillers, known as mu-opioids.  In layman’s terms, the presence of this gene variation results in people actually feeling more pain in response to being physically hurt. What is so interesting about the new study is that researchers discovered this same gene variation also appears to regulate the level of distress felt if one is socially hurt.

And this finding is not just supported by people’s subjective reports of experiencing distress when being rejected.  The researchers also performed functional MRIs of the brains of those with this gene while exposing them to a computer program that simulated social rejection.  What they found was that those with the gene variation reported higher levels of distress in response to social rejection, and also exhibited more activity in the social pain–related regions of the brain – specifically the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula.  In other words, those with this gene variation not only had the subjective experience of heightened “rejection sensitivity”, but they also had more objectively measurable activity in the parts of the brain associated with social pain.

This research supports and furthers previous research done at UCLA in 2003.  That study found that the anterior cingulate cortex is more active when those with rejection sensitivity feel socially hurt.  The new study takes that discovery one step further in highlighting how this part of the brain is not just more active in the socially sensitive, but also how this activity is mediated by a specific gene.

Taken together, these two studies provide the most advanced clues yet as to how and why some people experience social rejection with such force.  And for those with Social Anxiety / Social Phobia, these studies not only provide evidence that their suffering is real, but also provide hopeful avenues for future research that may one day lead to better treatments for this condition.

•Tom Corboy, MFT, is the director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related conditions, including Social Anxiety.  In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment.  To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.