Withstand Rejection Better with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“People who have greater levels of mindfulness — or the tendency to maintain attention on and awareness of the present moment — are better able to cope with the pain of being rejected by others.” – Brian McNeill
Humans are social animals. This is a great asset for the species as the effort of the individual is amplified by cooperation. In primitive times, this cooperation was essential for survival. But in modern times it is also essential, not for survival but rather for making a living and for the happiness of the individual. This ability to cooperate is so essential to human flourishing that it is built deep into our DNA and is reflected in the structure of the human nervous system. This deep need for positive social interactions heightens the pain of social rejection.
Mindfulness has been found to increase prosocial behaviors such as altruism, compassion and empathy and reduce antisocial behaviors such as violence and aggression. It can also improve the individual’s ability to respond adaptively to strong emotions. So, it is possible that mindfulness may work to counter the effects of social rejection. In today’s Research News article “When less is more: mindfulness predicts adaptive affective responding to rejection via reduced prefrontal recruitment.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6022565/ ), Martelli and colleagues examine the relationship of mindfulness to the ability to cope with social rejection and its relationship to brain structure and connectivity.
They recruited healthy undergraduate students and measured them for mindfulness and social distress. They then played a video game while having their brain scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The game was called “Cyberball” which the participant believed they were playing on-line with others. The players tossed a “ball” to each others. After a while the participant stopped receiving the “ball” from other players simulating social rejection. They were then measured again for social distress.
They found that after the social “rejection” that the participants who were high in mindfulness were significantly lower in social distress. This suggests that mindfulness tends to protect the individual from the negative emotions associated with social rejection. In addition, they found that the high mindfulness was associated with lower activation of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and less connectivity of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex with the Amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. This lower activity and connectivity was associated with lower social distress following social rejection.
This study employs a fairly artificial method to simulate the social distress produced by rejection. But, the participants reported ignorance that the game was not actually being played socially and the “rejection” appeared to increase distress. So, the lab task appeared to be valid. It should be kept in mind, however, that the findings are correlational and as a result no conclusions can be reached regarding causation. Future research should investigate the impact of mindfulness training on the social distress produced by rejection.
The results of the fMRI scans suggest that activation of a brain network including the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex are involved in social distress and that mindfulness is associated with lower activity in these structures resulting in less social distress. So, mindfulness may work to dampen brain activity that’s involved in social distress helping to protect the individual from the negative emotions produced by social rejection.
Rejection can be devastating to an individual. It can produce strong negative emotions. The fact that mindfulness appears to help the individual cope with the rejection is and important benefit of mindfulness. It further suggests that people suffering from social anxiety might benefit from mindfulness training. Indeed, previous research indicates exactly that. Mindfulness training is an effective treatment for social anxiety disorder.
So, withstand rejection better with mindfulness.
“Mindful individuals are not as distressed by social rejection. Mindful individuals appear to successfully regulate distressing emotions by not using effortful, inhibitory processes that suppress their feelings of social pain.” – Shawna Freshwater
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Martelli, A. M., Chester, D. S., Warren Brown, K., Eisenberger, N. I., & DeWall, C. N. (2018). When less is more: mindfulness predicts adaptive affective responding to rejection via reduced prefrontal recruitment. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 13(6), 648–655. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsy037
Social rejection is a distressing and painful event that many people must cope with on a frequent basis. Mindfulness—defined here as a mental state of receptive attentiveness to internal and external stimuli as they arise, moment-to-moment—may buffer such social distress. However, little research indicates whether mindful individuals adaptively regulate the distress of rejection—or the neural mechanisms underlying this potential capacity. To fill these gaps in the literature, participants reported their trait mindfulness and then completed a social rejection paradigm (Cyberball) while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. Approximately 1 hour after the rejection incident, participants reported their level of distress during rejection (i.e. social distress). Mindfulness was associated with less distress during rejection. This relation was mediated by lower activation in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex during the rejection incident, a brain region reliably associated with the inhibition of negative affect. Mindfulness was also correlated with less functional connectivity between the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the bilateral amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which play a critical role in the generation of social distress. Mindfulness may relate to effective coping with rejection by not over-activating top-down regulatory mechanisms, potentially resulting in more effective long-term emotion-regulation.