Rejection, Health, and Mindfulness
Research confirms the link between rejection and a person’s risk for health problems, and suggests that mindfulness may be a way to reduce stress, cope with rejection, and improve one’s immune system. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment or the “here and now.” Deepak Chopra, MD describes mindful living as the “highest form of human intelligence.” It is a state of mind and is also believed to increase attention span and boost creativity. Mindfulness skills can be learned and developed with practice.
Neurological and Environmental Differences
We all experience differences in our neurological responses to stress and rejection and in our experiences of rejection in our environments. Some of us are more sensitive than others to feelings of rejection, and have stronger emotional reactions than others. Some of us experience home, community, school and work environments that are more rejecting than others. We all belong to cultural groups that are more or less accepted by our society’s dominant culture. We all have experienced some form of social rejection. Our view of social rejection can determine how it affects us.
Psychoneuroimmunology is a branch of medicine that studies how emotions affect the immune system. UCLA researchers recently identified that how our brain responds to social stressors can influence the body’s immune system and health. People who are more sensitive to social rejection experience greater increases in inflammatory activity in their immune systems. This increase in inflammatory activity is adaptive in acute situations because it promotes wound healing and reduces risk for infection when there is a physical injury. It is part of our immune system’s natural response to potentially harmful situations. When physical threats have been associated with social rejection, inflammation may be triggered in anticipation of a physical injury. Frequent or chronic activation of inflammation in the immune system can increase risk for asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and depression.
The Research, the Purpose, and the Findings
In the study at UCLA, researchers subjected participants to forms of social rejection and stress. They measured changes in inflammatory biological markers in saliva and changes in brain activity during an MRI that was programmed to light up brain regions associated with fear, stress, and rejection. Participants who showed high neural responses to rejection during the MRI also showed the greatest increase in inflammatory activity in their saliva following tests of social stress and rejection.
The purpose of the study was to help practitioners who work with people who feel rejected and teach them more effective ways to respond to rejection. The study was also designed to better understand neurocognitive pathways that underlie inflammatory responses to stress.
Dealing With Rejection
George Slavich, PhD., the lead author of the study suggested some solutions for dealing with rejection. One solution is to recognize that a negative thought is not the same as fact. In other words, because I feel rejected or think I am being rejected does not objectively mean that I am being rejected. Some people are quick to conclude that they are being rejected when there is no real evidence of rejection. Learning to ask myself, “where is the evidence that I’m being rejected?” can be helpful. If there is really no evidence, I can change my belief instead of continuing to believe I am being rejected.
If I am right, and I am being rejected, I can learn not to “catastrophize” or act in ways that will worsen the situation. Catastrophizing is the mental mistake of imagining that an unfortunate event is the same as a major catastrophe such as a hurricane, flood or national disaster, and reacting to that event is if it were a real catastrophe; telling oneself how horrible and awful it is when really it is only unfortunate, inconvenient or uncomfortable. If I think a situation is a catastrophe, I am likely to react in a way that makes the situation worse… and consequently, experience social rejection. If I think a situation is unfortunate or uncomfortable, rather than catastrophic, I can better manage any discomfort I might experience.
Mindfulness and Therapy
Mindfulness techniques can be used to learn to accept feelings of rejection and other strong feelings and to better tolerate them. The book, Fully Present, is an introduction to mindfulness as it is taught at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC). In Fully Present, author Susan Smalley, Ph.D. explains how mindfulness can affect the brain and body and provides guidance for developing and practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is also a part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), an approach to therapy that combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. CBT emphasizes that our thoughts about a situation rather than the situation itself contribute to our emotional and behavioral responses. DBT has been shown to be most helpful to persons with Borderline Personality features who experience a great deal of difficulty regulating emotions, are extremely sensitive to rejection, and have a very strong reaction to rejection that often includes self-injurious behaviors. According to the study, individuals with Borderline Personality features are at higher risk for certain illnesses.
Practicing mindfulness can be helpful for managing mild to moderate responses to rejection and other social stressors. Combining mindfulness with CBT or DBT therapy is needed for severe sensitivity to rejection, especially when life-threatening behaviors are involved.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Rejection
- MacDonald, G and Jensen-Campell, L. (2010) Social Pain: Neuropsychological and Health Implications of Loss and Exclusion. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4317243.aspx?tab=3#
- Slavicha, G. M., Wayb, B.M., Eisenberger, N.I. and Taylor, S.E. (2010) Neural sensitivity to social rejection is associated with inflammatory responses to social stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(33), 14817–14822. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1009164107. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/107/33/14817.full
- Smalley, S. and Winston, D. (2010). Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness. Da Capo Press. Philadelphia, PA.
- UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Retrieved from http://marc.ucla.edu/default.cfm
- WebMD. (2011). Pain, Social Rejection Have Similar Effect on Brain: Study Suggests Similarities in Physical Pain and Emotional Pain. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/news/20110328/pain-social-rejection-have-similar-effect-on-brain
© 2010 Kim Harris