Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Social Rejection Influences Health

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Come Out Of Victim Mode Sooner Than Later

Have you experienced rejection at the social level at any time of your life? At school or college, or at the place of work, or in the neighborhood, or at social do's? Have you sensed that people turn their face away from you when they spot you approaching them, pretending that they haven't seen you? Or worse, they pointedly leave their position and move away, so that when you reach the place where they were standing up until that point, it is now empty, and you have nobody to talk to? When you approach a couple engaged in conversation, both acquaintances, do you sense that they carry on with their conversation without acknowledging your presence, not even a nod, as if you were an invisible entity, and not bothering that their behavior might hurt? If all these do not describe you, great. If they do, then know that your continued brooding over the social rejection you are facing can lead you to a host of diseases, both biological and psychological. And the sooner you took action on overcoming this issue, the better it would be for you.

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The media recently picked up the findings of a research paper published in the latest online issue of PNAS, which talked about an experiment involving perceived social rejection faced by 31 youngsters in a laboratory setting. (The paper is available here:

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In the first part of the experiment, the participants prepared and delivered an impromptu speech. Later they were given difficult mental arithmetic to solve. All this while, they had before them an audience which was totally discouraging and downright dismissive of the participant's efforts. The impact of this social rejection was measured by detecting the level of two key markers of inflammatory activity in their saliva. In the second part of the experiment, the participants played a computer game called "Cyberball", which supposedly involved two other players but in reality were software bots. These bots had been trained to play only amongst themselves and not respond to the participant's moves. The participant would invariably take it as social rejection. The impact of this social rejection was measured by detecting the level of neural activity in two centers of the brain, viz., the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula.

image by ilco,

The experiment established that there is a strong correlation between inflammatory activity at the physiological level and neural activity in the brain, in a situation where a person is subjected to stress, especially of the social-evaluative-threat-and-rejection kind. It is a two-way street between the brain and the physiology. In one direction, an external experience of social rejection leads to heightened neural activity in the rejection-centers of the brain. In the other direction, an internalized, self-referential perception that one is being socially rejected ("I am a social reject", "Other people don't like me"), leads to heightened inflammatory activity in the body. Inflammatory activity by itself is not bad; it is actually one of the mechanisms of self-defense. However, when this activity is persistent and long-drawn, the paper says, it can lead to a host of physical conditions such as arthritis, asthma and the like.

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A long and persistent bout of social rejection can lead to a host of psychological conditions too. In another interesting experiment, a researcher subjected participants to either of three situations - acceptance, rejection and control feedback. Later, as part of the experiment, the participants were offered two chairs to sit in. One chair faced a wall. The other chair faced a mirror, so the participant could see their own reflection staring at them. Guess which chair the socially-rejected participant chose to sit in? The one facing the mirror? No. They invariably chose to sit in the chair facing the wall. Psychologists infer that the reason behind this choice is that an individual experiencing social rejection avoids, and keeps avoiding, self-awareness, and shifts their attention towards the others. They become more observant of the behavior of the others, rather than their own behavior. This is different from one's own feelings about oneself, which is marinated in negativity anyway. You see, when you avoid awareness of the self, you save yourself of the unpleasantness of acknowledging your social shortcomings and failures.

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Is this psychological refuge - such as of avoiding self-awareness, of withdrawing into a shell, of becoming aggressive towards all and sundry, or of descending into depression - healthy? We agree that it is not. The basic, primordial need to belong drives us all to form social networks and groups, both offline and online. Individuals who are targets of social exclusion and ostracism have to work on the problem at two planes. One is to work on an emotional strategy that mitigates the pain of rejection and at the same time shifts one's focus to positive regard for the self. The other is to work on a social strategy which redefines how one picks up cues from the environment of acceptance and rejection, and also which redefines how one approaches these cues and processes them mentally. When this happens, the individual can hope to forge new social connections which are based on healthy mutual respect, without repeating any earlier pattern of rejection.

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Difficult to implement, but the first step towards handling social rejection is to confront yourself fairly and squarely, to acknowledge the problem rather than escape from it, and to hold yourself in positive self-regard while doing so. 

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[The way the Universe has constructed us, we find it very easy to slip into a negative affect mode. Self-criticism, self-loathe, remorse, guilt, self-put-down are all emotions and feelings which come to us quite naturally, without much effort. On the other hand, see how much effort all the self-development gurus and the soothsayers and the healers have to expend in order to help us see the brighter side of things! Psychologist Freud blazed the path with his treatises on how our ego and superego conspire to deprive our id from primeval happiness. If you have ever wondered why, after all these years, you are still grappling with thoughts of why you still feel so unhappy at times, you might read up on this insightful article here: "Do You Have A Bit Of Dobby In You?".]

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