How the Mindful Brain Copes With Rejection

Being human means being rejected. Our friends don’t return our texts, our dates ghost us, and our job applications are returned with “sadly, we are unable to offer you this position”. Such rejections are so damaging that, if they occur chronically, are linked to worse health outcomes than cigarette smoking or obesity. Rejection’s association with poor health is likely due to the fact that rejection, a social injury, activates the same pain pathways in the brain as physical injuries.

Because of these profound costs of rejection, interventions that help people better manage their social pain are needed. Fortuitously, there is promise on the horizon, in the form of mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to a psychological process characterized by attention to and awareness of one’s current experience and also entails a non-judgmental approach towards these feelings.

People who tend to be more mindful in their daily life tend to have better responses to rejection. For instance, having people practice mindfulness reduced their aggressive responses to an instance of social rejection. Yet it remains unknown how mindfulness is able to positively influence responses to rejection.

In a recently-published study led by Alexandra Martelli, a doctoral candidate in my lab, we investigated whether specific brain circuits explain why mindful people are better at coping with rejection. Specifically, we focused on a region of the prefrontal cortex that specializes in inhibiting negative emotions, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). We also looked at the connections between the VLPFC and parts of the brain that generate negative emotions such as the amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC).

To do so, participants came to our lab and completed a scientifically-validated questionnaire that measures how dispositionally mindful people are, by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “I drive places on “automatic pilot” and then wonder why I went there” and “I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what I’m doing.”. Mindful individuals tend to disagree with such statements. About two weeks after completing this measure, participants arrived at our MRI facility where they entered an MRI scanner that measured brain function. While this machine was running, they completed a little ball-tossing game with two partners. For the first two-thirds of the game, their partners passed them the ball an equal number of times. However, towards the end of the task, their two partners just started throwing the ball back-and-forth, excluding the participant from the ball toss. When the ball-tossing task was done, we escorted participants out of the MRI scanner to a nearby room and had them complete a questionnaire that asked them how they distressed they felt when they were being excluded with statements such as “I felt like an outsider during the game” and “playing the game made me feel insecure”.

As we expected, mindful people reported feeling less distress due to the exclusion incident. When we looked at participants’ brain activity during the exclusion phase of the ball-toss, they tended to recruit the VLPFC in order to suppress the pain of rejection. However, more mindful individuals recruited the VLPFC to a lesser extent. More so, mindful participants exhibited less connectivity (a measure of how much two brain regions are communicating) between the VLPFC and distress-generating parts of the brain such as the amygdala and DACC. In summary, mindful individuals did not exhibit the typical ‘tamping down’ of negative emotion that we often see during social rejection.

Further, we observed that this reduced prefrontal inhibition helped to explain why mindful individuals report less distress during rejection. These findings, while preliminary and obtained with a small undergraduate sample, suggest that mindful individuals are better at coping with social rejection because they don’t attempt to suppress the experience in the first place. Such results imply that mindfully-accepting, rather than suppressing, such social pain appears to go a long way towards healing from social injuries. Harnessing these mechanisms of the mindful brain is likely to help many people cope with the sting of rejection.

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