Does rejection really hurt?

broken heartWe talk about having a “broken” heart or “wounded” spirit or “hurt” feelings when we experience a significant rejection in love. Why do we use words that are the same as those that describe physical pain or injury? Is looking at Facebook photos of your ex with his new love equivalent to spilling a scalding hot cup of coffee on your lap?

My inquiring psychologist side decided to research this question, and I came across a study published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. A group of investigators compared brain activity generated by intense personal rejection with brain activity caused by intense physical pain.

First they explained that pain is registered in two different areas of the brain. The affective quality of pain (“That’s unpleasant!) is registered in the dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC) and the anterior insula (AI). This area also is activated by a feeling of social rejection. But the real bodily or somatic perception of pain (“Ouch!”—the brain part that makes you wince and reach for the vicodin when you are physically injured) is registered in the secondary somatosensory cortex (S2) and the dorsal posterior insula (dpINS), which we wouldn’t expect to be affected by purely emotional experiences.

Their research method was simple. Take 40 people who felt intensely rejected as a result of recently experiencing an unwanted romantic relationship break-up and give them two tasks. The Social Rejection task was to look at either a head-shot of the ex-lover and think about their specific rejection experience or a head-shot of a friend of the same sex as the lover and think of a recent positive experience with him or her. The Physical Pain task was a Hot trial with a noxious thermal stimulation delivered to their arm or a Warm trial with a non-noxious thermal stimulation on their arm. The subjects rated their “feeling” experience on each task on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the most painful. Their brains responses were studied with a functional MRI to see what brain areas were activated during each of these four trials.

So here is the surprising outcome. The ratings for both the Social Rejection and the Physical Pain tasks were equivalent with severe physical pain and intense rejection rated exactly the same. And, as expected, both the head shot of the ex-lover and the Hot trial produced activity in the affective or “That’s unpleasant!” part of the brain. But, both also produced activity in the “Ouch!” part of the brain. Conclusion: intense rejection is actually perceived as physical pain by our brains.

It is interesting that the “Ouch!” part of the brain is also activated if we observe another person experiencing physical pain. The researchers thought it would be interesting to explore if, for example, a parent watches their child experience rejection if this would also register in the “Ouch!” part of the brain.

So, what does this mean in terms of recovery from a “broken heart”? First, we need to be kind to ourselves and know that our experience is real and, in fact, is equivalent in terms of our brain’s response to a very severe physical injury. And, as the study showed, we can re-experience that level of pain by simply looking at a photo of the ex-lover or thinking about the rejection experience. Intense ongoing physical pain can interrupt sleep, create or worsen depression, and even lead to suicidal thoughts and plans. It can disrupt our relations with our family and co-workers. Chronic pain sufferers tend to reach for the alcoholic drink, the vicodin bottle, illicit drugs, or gallons of ice cream to take the edge off their pain. So do those experiencing intense rejection.

What are the solutions? We can look to how we help chronic pain patients. Part of my current job as the Mental Health Clinical Director for a large health plan is to develop strategies to help our members manage pain safely. We recommend therapists who can teach them how to look at their pain differently. How to think about “managing” their pain instead of getting rid of it. We offer them relaxation and meditation skills to lessen the pain without turning to addictive drugs, even the prescribed ones. Did you know that there is a opioid epidemic in our country—that the death rate from opioid overdoses is skyrocketing even when people are taking correctly prescribed doses? I recently put two and two together and figured out why I headed for the codeine bottle (prescribed to me as a teen for menstrual pain) when I didn’t get asked to a school dance. It actually worked to soften the pain of rejection.

A recent WordPress blog that I follow at thefallingthoughts.com entitled BREAKUP 2 MAKE-UP included many other helpful reframes for those suffering the pain of rejection. I particularly liked the bit about crying your eyes out but the next day don’t repeat the same thing—after all, we don’t laugh at the same joke twice. I also enjoyed the advice that everything has an expiration date—even relationships. I wouldn’t eat a can of spoiled tuna. I look at the expiration date and throw it into the garbage. When life reminds me of a long-expired relationship, why in the world would I want to dig in, thinking it will taste okay? It’s actually going to turn out about the same as holding on to resentments. It’s like taking poison and hoping the other person will die.

Ethan Kross, March G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, and Tor D. Wager. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011, April 12, Volume 108(15), pps. 6270-6275

The garden path

garden pathshe tippy toes down garden path
mid fragrant hedge of self-deceit
his idle words writ on the net
form stepping stones beneath her feet

she stops to browse a wall not hers
photos of his other life
a stunning bit of azure silk
the glint of diamonds on a ring
shout wedding day
in deafened ears

a look content upon his face
at family table fed with smiles
slows her merry made-up pace
turns hopeful moments into miles
of unfulfilled and foolish chase

she grabs the dagger by the hilt
and draws it from her broken heart
her wound will heal if given time
and a willingness to part
with journeys down that garden path
that leads to nowhere from the start

My life as a novel

An entry from my daily meditation writing from four years ago and still something to consider each day:

pulitzer prizeI feel better when I think about my life being like a great Pulitzer Prize winning novel—each chapter a new adventure or misadventure, each turn in plot clever and unexpected, and no cliched happy forever after endings. A novel that is an epic journey, chock full of interesting characters, whose lives unfold in mysterious ways. Plot lines that are wild and crazy, dramatic and suspenseful.

This is exactly how I should view my life. A future that will surprise me. A journey that will not turn out as I assumed, expected, or perhaps even wanted. I need to live and pray my way through this epic journey of mine. I hate novels that have predictable endings. So why would I want to live a life that turns out that way? I don’t even want to write a novel like that! And I haven’t. Watching my homemade trailers for Degrees of Obsession and Mother Tongue reminds me of how much effort I put into having story lines that both surprise and satisfy.

In my own fiction writing, I seek to create stories with a gritty realism and surprising plot twists. Ones with real meaning at the end, not just pat “happy endings”. I want my characters to learn something from the difficult experiences they go through, especially those of their own making. As an author, I know that what they learn is more important than what they originally wanted.

Every time I start boo-hooing over the fact that I don’t have that formula romance in my life, I need to remind myself that my life is indeed a great novel, one worth reading. As a reader of that life story, I don’t want the ending to be predictable, and I especially don’t want to read ahead and see what the final outcome will be. I just want to read each page each day and be filled with neither anticipation nor dread about what the next page will bring.

If I consider each day another page and not get ahead of myself or keep re-reading the past pages, I think that I will find that my life is interesting, unpredictable, and worthwhile. If there was a particularly sad or disappointing page in the past, re-reading it a thousand times won’t make it less so and, in the meantime, I won’t be focused on the new page for the day which might very well bring happiness beyond my wildest imagination. And if I miss the new page by dwelling on the past, hoping those past chapters will change their shape or character, I will never catch up—by then the new page will have become history and I will have missed experiencing what it offered.

Nor do I want to read ahead and skip pages because my story won’t make sense and again I will have missed the page for today. My life has been a great novel—pathos, excitement, romance in small doses, challenges, overcoming abuse, helping others, changing lives. The author of my life, whom I chose to call God, has drawn me as a main character with intelligence, humor, creativity, wisdom, the ability to figure things out and to adjust. He has provided juicy subplots and fascinating minor characters who have swept in and provided plot tension and then disappeared—but the protagonist (me!) has always survived and lived on.

As a reader I need to be interested in HER! She’s still here waging the war, having new adventures, being herself. Sometimes she’s sad and I can cry with her. I can hope that in the next few pages she’ll put it all into perspective, that she’ll realize that the author of her story has something much better in mind for her. She has been up against worthy antagonists—ones that added particular tension and suspense to her story. Will Dad come ever care? Will Mom be able to protect her? Will brother turn out to be sorry? Will so-and-so ever come back?

one pate at a timeThe author of my life story hands me just one page at a time. There is no other better version available at the next bookstore. After all, He wrote the Greatest Story Ever Told. Hey…I’m living in a best seller. And, to boot, He’s given me the talent to write myself. Do I want some sappy ending with a minor character that was written out of my story pages and pages ago? No, I want to see who comes into my life in the future. And I have to keep doing the footwork in the meantime. I can’t sink into inertia. I can’t stop looking for the opportunities for growth and happiness that are at hand. So, keep reading, Karen, and live out this day God has written especially for you.

Mimi’s morning

IMG_0896pitch black
door squeaks open
four little feet at the
bottom of sturdy legs
wrapped in Frozen flannel
pad over to my bedside
turn off my c-pap
can’t breathe
can’t sleep
peal covers off my
reluctant body

clock says 6:36
“get up, Mimi”
down two flights
bananas in hand
turn on Sophia the First

up two flights
gather outfits
pink stripe
polka dot princess
down two flights
distribute same
stern warning to get dressed or
TV off
clamber into shower
try not to slip on
treacherous tile

everyone dressed
up one flight
breakfast
cheerios for one
toast for the other
orange juice
sipped through snout of
dog…bear…whatever

assemble lunches
daddy fixed the night before
line up
backpacks
water
jackets
shoes
water down hair
slick back into
ponytails

clock ticking
mommy says 7:45
ready or not
everything on
down four flights of
red brick steps
van seat still blocked by
boxes of whatever
beyond my brain to
figure it out
mommy helps
off they go
chattering in French

up four flights of
same dangerous brick
gather garbage
theirs…mine
down four flights
stuff in cans
up four flights
count as exercise
dishes in dishwasher
down one flight to my
Provençal pink lime
hideaway
strangely quiet
writing time
8:01

gratitudes
children here and afar
productive
loving
grandchildren
smart
healthy

prayers for women
who have not my
blessings
whose exhaustion comes
not from hectic mornings
but from mourning
lives without
little ones to
pry open their eyelids at
6:36

Love words

love words
love words slide from my lips
evaporating into barrier of
thick unforgiving air before
intended ears can hear

others ooze from
ink-soaked nibs or are
tapped into existence
laying useless
unread by
hardhearted eyes

I am neither heard nor seen
except by those who
hang on my thoughts out of
desperation or
devotion

Cinderella revisited

cinderella1

POEMS FOR RECOVERY by DR. KAREN STEPHEN AKA DOC FLAMINGO

sitting by the hearth
wearing soot dusted clothes that
beg to be washed clean

stirring gloomy embers with an
iron poker of obsession
hoping to relight passion in
dark dead coals

memories of bright flames
sear my brain
forgetting how fast they
consumed reason
turned ardor to
conflagration
leaving blisters on my
soul

fire that burned
more than warmed
then died
leaving me even more
alone in the
chilled solitary night

can I take my
cinderella self and
search the garden for my
fairy godmother
armed with wand and
pumpkins

not to find a prince
but to take
just one ride in the
golden carriage of
my life

When in doubt

bad catpernicious thoughts
swirl
stew
boil
in my brain
determined to declare me
winner in this battle of
belonging

angry words lurk in
stamped addressed envelope in
my purse
patient
poisonous
each syllable soaked in
revenged intent
‘gainst him her
refusing to be
trashed

count to ten
if needed to
ten thousand
count blessings
god things
number hallowed gifts
intended for
hollow spaces

listen to
heart-meant cautions from
loving lips of
friends

read meaning-true
paragraphs of hope from the
same hand in
better times

recite prayers of
intercession
forgiveness
try to mean it

drop not into
blue box
drop into god box

Do not cling…

worth itdo not cling
shrink wrap yourself
around something
not yours to have
not love
nor money
nor any object
of your desire

save endless
hours of emotional
wear and tear
avoid exercise in futility
you cannot stick
to Teflon dreams
that resist
the irresistible you

believe life gives
what is yours to have
let feelings linger
until dissolved
seek poetic companions
who inspire
pick author’s brains
who encourage

decide to be cheerful
just for today

Being enough…a mantra

A friend passed this on to me. Certainly food for thought:

enoughWhat if for just one breath, I was enough?
That I didn’t have anything to gain or lose, to become or change.
That I, in this body, in this moment was enough?
How much more space would I create in my heart for happiness?
For contentment?
For love?

For just this one breath, I am enough.

flamingo_flying_med_clIn my Doc Flamingo persona, I am a licensed Psychologist in California and after a 40-year career as a therapist, am now serving as the Mental Health Clinical Director for a large health plan providing medical and mental health services to over 500,000 Medi-Cal recipients in 14 northern CA counties. In my Karen Stephen writer persona, I invite you to LIKE my AUTHOR FACEBOOK PAGE and tell me about yours.

 

Beware BAD THINKING AHEAD…

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Longtime therapist Dr. Charlene “Charlie” Pederson admits that her fixation with college sweetheart Danny Shapiro has reached the unsettling stage of obsession.  Jolted by turning fifty and struggling with a condescending husband, Charlie crafts a harebrained scheme to find Danny and recapture his heart.  Her delight at reuniting  with her old flame soon turns to indignation when he accuses her of stalking him. Danny’s fears about being stalked are well-founded.

Degrees New Front CoverCharlie plays on her professional expertise about stalking to worm her way back into Danny’s life…all the while jeopardizing her marriage, tarnishing her reputation, and alienating her best friend.  After her darkest secret is revealed, Charlie plunges into unfamiliar depths of pain and mortal danger and must rely on every psychological trick in her book to survive. DEGREES OF OBSESSION will take you on a riveting journey from risky infatuation to personal fulfillment and forgiveness.