Breakup pain amplifies physical pain

Within the realm of human experience, pain manifests in two distinct forms: physical pain, arising from actual or potential tissue damage, and social pain, stemming from adverse social encounters. Despite efforts to navigate daily existence, individuals often find themselves grappling with both physical and social pain simultaneously. Yet, the influence of social pain on the perception of physical pain during interpersonal interactions remains enigmatic.

To bridge this gap, a research team led by Dr. Kong Yazhuo from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences embarked on a series of studies. Their objective: to explore how social pain impacts the perception of physical pain. Their findings, documented in the study titled “The dual facilitatory and inhibitory effects of social pain on physical pain perception,” have been published in iScience.

The researchers enlisted college students who had recently undergone passive breakups. Utilizing a meticulously designed protocol, participants were exposed to both social pain—induced by glimpses of their former romantic partners—and physical pain, induced by controlled heat pulses not exceeding 50°C. Amidst this dual stimulation, participants were tasked with discerning and articulating their sensations.

The results unveiled a paradoxical interplay between social and physical pain: social rejection from romantic partners paradoxically heightened the perception of physical pain when individuals diverted their attention from their social distress, yet tempered physical pain perception when social pain took precedence.

Delving deeper into the neural mechanisms, the researchers identified distinct brain regions at play: the posterior insula encoded the facilitatory effect, while the frontal pole mediated the inhibitory influence. At a higher cognitive level, the thalamus emerged as a critical regulator, orchestrating a switch-like response to varying levels of social pain concern.

These insights into the dual pathway mechanism suggest the potential for psychological interventions aimed at modulating the perceptual processing of noxious stimuli. Such interventions could hold significant promise for enhancing human mental health and well-being, particularly among individuals grappling with social pain in the context of illness, whether it be mental disorders or physical disabilities.

Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences

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