Image©Yuri_Arcurs, istockphoto

What do a scraped knee and a broken heart have in common? They hurt! Scraping your knee is physical pain. A broken heart is social pain. To understand how these two are different and similar, let’s look at bullying.

Two types of bullying

Bullying is aggressive behaviour used to dominate others. It results in a power imbalance: the victim feels less powerful than the bully. Just like pain, bullying can be physical or social. You can imagine how a victim of physical bullying can feel physical pain. But the social pain caused by social bullying hurts, too. Social bullying can involve talking meanly to someone, threatening them, or excluding them from groups or activities. Think of the tactics of the infamous Regina George (wear pink on Wednesdays, or you’re out!). Victims of social bullying often feel rejected by their peers.

Pain and the brain

Studies have found that physical and social pain have similar effects on the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain is involved in autonomic functions (like heart rate) and higher-order functions (like emotion processing). The somatosensory cortex of the brain is associated with tactile functions (things to do with your sense of touch). Scientists know that both of these regions are activated in a person experiencing physical pain. But studies have found that social pain can also involve these parts of the brain. This suggests that the biological processes involved in physical and social pain are similar. It also explains why some bullying victims also experience fibromyalgia (persistent muscle pain and fatigue).

So the next time you hear someone say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” tell them to think again! Studies suggest that non-physical forms of bullying are just as painful and dangerous as physical forms. Studies have also found that victims of both types of bullying are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.

Did you know? A study on macaques (a type of monkey) found that damage to the ACC causes a decrease in social interaction.

Hope for healing

There’s good news, though! Bullying doesn’t have to mean poorer mental health. Good social support can fight some of the negative effects of bullying. Researchers have found that social support increases the activity of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates emotions. When your prefrontal cortex is more active, your ACC is less active. This means that social support can actually help you suppress pain altogether.

So, if a friend is being bullied, how can you provide good social support? Listen to them, let them share their feelings, lend them things to cheer them up, or go with them to talk to a teacher about bullying. All of these are examples of social support. Talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres’ tagline sums it all up: “Be kind to one another.”

Did you know? The Cyberball task is often used to study social pain. It’s a virtual task that models social rejection. The participant tries to be part of a group playing ball-toss, but nobody tosses the ball to them. You can try Cyberball out if you want!

Learn More!

About Pain

IASP Taxonomy (2014)
International Association for the Study of Pain

About Pain and Bullying

Canadian Bullying Statistics (2012)
Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Pain in Canada Fact Sheet (2014)
The Canadian Pain Society

Physical Health Problems and Bullying
Prevent, National Centres of Excellence & U.S Department of Health and Human Services

About Studies on the Link Between Social Pain and the Brain

Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain (2011)
E. Kross, M.G. Berman, W. Mischel, E.E. Smith, & T.D. Wager, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain (2012)
N.I. Eisenberger, Nature Reviews Neuroscience

Ella Adi-Wauran

I’m an avid reader with a passion for writing (everything from to-do lists to scientific articles like the one you just read!). I perpetually find myself fascinated by science – how the nervous system works, in particular – which is why I’m currently working toward a Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience and Mental Health at Carleton University. In my spare time, I’m either curling up with a book, frolicking at a park somewhere, Ellaor unleashing my inner artist.

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