Have you ever experienced heartbreak following a difficult social situation? It seems that the pain we experience due to social alienation may not simply be a metaphor. According to scientific research, social rejection and loneliness are truly comparable to physical injuries because our brains interpret both types of pain similarly. This blog will explore the fascinating relationship between social and physical pain and help readers understand how important social interactions are to maintaining our psychological health.

“It physically hurts”

The loss of important social ties has been acknowledged by authors throughout history as one of the most painful human experiences. Languages all over the world frequently use words for physical pain to describe moments of social estrangement. This implies that social isolation is comparable to physical pain and is not just poetic license.

Language regularly equates socially felt pain with physical pain by using expressions like “broken heart” or “hurt feelings.” It is possible that this association is not random. The social-attachment system and the pain system have been shown to have similar neural circuits in mammalian species. In essence, our brains appear to use the pain system’s computations to protect us from the negative effects of social isolation. The idea that physical and social pain share similar neural circuitry and computational mechanisms is supported by data from human neuroimaging and animal lesion studies.

The ‘Sociometer Theory’ of Self Esteem

From research, we know that high self-esteem is crucial for good psychological health. However, according to recent research, the foundation of the concept of self-esteem may actually be the level of social connectedness. Self-esteem serves as a gauge of how much a person is included or excluded by others, according to the “sociometer theory.” Similar to how a fuel gauge displays the amount of gas in a car to prevent empty tanks, our brains appear to have evolved to monitor our acceptance or rejection within social groups. Numerous studies have demonstrated that experiencing more rejection results in lower self-esteem and more negative feelings towards the self.

The ‘Cyberball Experiment’

Cyberball, a well-known experiment, offers fascinating insights into the effects of social exclusion. Participants are asked to engage in a virtual game of ball-tossing over the internet, either with human opponents or, it seems, with artificial intelligence. The researchers actually have control over the other “players” in the game. Even when playing with a computer program, participants’ self-esteem suffers when they are left out of the game or rejected. This experiment demonstrates how deeply social inclusion is ingrained in our brains as well as the potency of social pain.

Why is my heart hurting?

Our brains’ propensity for both social and physical pain may have evolved together. Strong social ties are necessary for survival in mammalian species because young people go through a long period of immaturity. Humans unintentionally develop a lifelong need for social connection as a result of this, and when those connections are broken, we feel distressed. According to the research, similar to how physical pain warns us to protect our bodies from harm, social pain may act as an alarm system, encouraging us to seek out and maintain social connections.

Understanding social pain and how it relates to physical pain can teach us a lot about how people think and feel. We can better understand the value of social connections in our lives and how crucial they are to our psychological health by comprehending the underlying neural processes.

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Seray Soyman is working as a Clinical Psychosexologist within the Willingness team, providing psychosexual education and sexual support sessions, as well as delivering training and workshops. She has a master’s degree in Clinical Psychosexology from the Sapienza University of Rome. Seray’s research interests are sexual communication, sex-positive behaviour, LGBTQIA+ studies, and sexual health.


Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8(7), 294-300.
Williams, K. D., Cheung, C. K., & Choi, W. (2000). Cyberostracism: effects of being ignored over the Internet. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(5), 748