Rejection While Depressed: Why It’s So Painful


Being rejected socially can be excruciatingly painful, especially for people who are depressed.

The extreme sensitivity to rejection in depressed individuals may be owed to a biochemical brain reaction, according to research published in Molecular Psychiatry.

Natural Opioids and Depression

Scientists already know that emotional hurt caused by social rejection is influenced by the brain's “mu-opioid receptor system.” This system sends natural pain killing opioids into the spaces between brain cells, easing physical and emotional distress.

The new research shows that when depressed people experience rejection, lower than normal levels of pain-numbing opioids are released by the mu-opioid brain system. When this happens, the pain of rejection feels more intense.

“Altered opioid activity in depression may hinder emotional recovery from negative social interactions and decrease pleasure derived from positive interactions,” said the research team. “Both effects may reinforce depression, trigger relapse, and contribute to poor treatment outcomes.”

Less Social Motivation

Though the research study was small, sophisticated PET scanning equipment was used to detect opioid activity in brain regions related to motivation, stress and mood.

17 medication-free people with major depressive disorder (MDD) participated, along with 18 non-depressed individuals.

Results showed that when social acceptance occurred:

  1. Only the non-depressed participants had an increased desire for social contact.
  2. Only the non-depressed participants showed increased opioid activity in the brain’s nucleus accumbens, a structure involved in positive emotions and reward.
  3. Depressed participants indicated they were happy about being liked, but the good feeling dissipated more rapidly than in the non-depressed group.

This research suggests how difficult it is for depressed people to interact with others. However, it also points to a potential target for new, innovative depression treatments.

Source: Brain Behavior Research Foundation
Photo credit: Luis Sarabia / flickr creative commons


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