Imagine a world where the fact that one of your friends blocked you makes you happy. While this situation isn't entirely feasible, your body has already developed a response to cushion the mental blow a social rejection stimulates. According to a study at the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, the same system that lessens the pain caused by physical injury also releases a similar chemical when you experience social media rejection.

To measure feelings of social rejection, participants created a dating profile and were shown the results of their matches rejecting or accepting them. Based on that response, the brain sent out more endogenous opiods in one area of the brain (for a rejection) or in another area of the brain (for acceptance). In other words, the brain reacted to social media rejection as if the participant had been punched in the stomach.

The Dating Game

Anyone on eHarmony or has played it: you send a note to a potential love interest only to have any hopes being dashed by a lack of response or a flat out decline. But rarely, if ever, do these users receive a rating of how much a person liked or disliked their profile.

Doctor David T. Hsu of the University of Michigan changed the dating game by showing how interested (or disinterested) a person was in the participant, showing his results in a recent Molecular Psychiatry publication. Even after informing participants that the dating simulation was not real, the participant's brain stimulated the endogenous opioid system to lessen the blow of the rejection. “We created the scenario in such a way that it felt realistic," said Hsu. So, even though participants knew this was just a simulation, it felt real enough to hurt and induce a response.

The study gave participants varying levels of the same response in increments of 20 minutes and observed their responses. A participant that received “likely no," “definitely no," or “most likely no" responses had chemical surges from the endogenous opioid system. “The reason why we varied the levels was to keep the subject's interest," Hsu said. “If it was 'definitely no' for an entire period, they might not care as much as if it was varied.

A Rejection Addiction

Is the chemical that the endogenous opioid system releases addictive? “In the case of rejection, I think opioids bring you up to normal feeling," Hsu clarified, “your opioids are released when you stub your toe, but that does not make you want to stub your toe over and over again. […] I wouldn't say people feel above neutral from opioid release due to social rejection."

While we can't become addicted to these chemicals (not that anyone would want to), medications that inhibit similar reactions are used regularly to treat anxiety and depression. “Currently, some of the medications for social anxiety are basically to try to numb that experience," Hsu said. He further clarified that opioid medications are not currently used in the industry because they are addictive. “One thing people are working on is to make opioid medications that are not addictive," Hsu said.

What It Means for Anxiety

If a non-addictive opioid medication is created, it could mean better treatment for people with anxiety and depression. The release of these chemicals can soften the blow of a bout of depression or anxiety attack, which would make anxiety and depression easier to cope with. These medications, along with regular therapy, could improve the lives of many anxiety and depression sufferers.

Hsu also pointed out that opioids are also released during social acceptance, which is important for overall well-being. “It's not all bad for people who might be anxious about social stimuli," Hsu said. As a result, he encourages that people also look at the positive aspects of the study because both are important to improving social comfort.

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