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The number of people experiencing social pain has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images
  • The pandemic is causing many people to experience social pain.
  • Social pain involves painful emotions caused by situations involving other people, such as feeling rejected, alone, ostracized, devalued, abandoned, or disconnected.
  • Experts say there are ways to cope with social pain during the pandemic.

Between social distancing, canceled events, and political unrest, many people are facing what researchers call “social pain.”

“In the psychological literature, the term ‘social pain’ has been used mostly to refer to reactions to losses of relationship through rejection, abandonment, death, moving away, or whatever, but there’s no doubt that simply lacking regular contact with people who value their relationships with us creates negative emotions involving sadness and loneliness as well,” Mark Leary, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told Healthline.

In fact, a study from the University of São Paulo suggests there’s been a meteoric rise in social pain from COVID-19.

Leary says feelings of loss are most likely the main reason people violate guidelines for controlling the pandemic, such as going out with friends, attending social events, and traveling over the holidays.

“The motive to maintain social connections is so powerful — and the emotions associated with feeling disconnected from other people so aversive — that it overrides rational considerations for staying healthy and protecting other people from the virus,” he said.

Leary defines social pain as a broad, informal label for painful emotions caused by situations involving other people, such as feeling rejected, alone, ostracized, devalued, abandoned, or disconnected.

“Typically, we think of ‘pain’ being caused by physical events — breaking an arm, stepping on broken glass, getting stung by a bee — but purely interpersonal events can hurt as much as physical experiences,” Leary said.

Those events might include painful feelings of grief when a loved one dies, sadness when a romantic relationship ends, or feeling ignored and rejected by your peers.

“The function of social pain is basically the same as physical pain — to alert us to threats to our social well-being (just as physical pain indicates threats to physical well-being), and to deter us from doing things that undermine our social relationships (just as fear of pain motivates us to take precautions [for our] physical safety),” said Leary.

Much of the benefit of social pain lies in its aversiveness, he added.

For instance, not wanting to experience negative feelings leads people to behave in ways that protect their meaningful relationships. Though adults and children are often discouraged from worrying about what other people think of them, social connection concerns are important.

“Imagine how we would act if people were not at all concerned with other people ignoring, rejecting, and abandoning them,” Leary said. “We’d have trouble maintaining friendships, romantic relationships, jobs, and other important relationships, seriously undermining the quality of our lives.”

While feelings of social pain can feel unbearable, the following can help you cope.

Feelings of social pain are an inherent part of being human, and while they are unpleasant, they do not signify that there is something wrong with you, says Leary.

However, they do indicate that your connections are not what you would like them to be at this time.

“Also, keep in mind that part of the problem lies in our individualist, fragmented, modern society. For millions of years, our ancestors lived in close-knit clans of 30 to 50 other individuals, so feelings of social isolation were rare (unless one behaved so badly that he or she was ostracized or expelled from the group). In contrast, we live rather socially disconnected lives, so feelings of social pain are more likely,” he said.

Deborah Serani, Psy.D. professor at Adelphi University and author of “Sometimes When I’m Sad,” says to permit yourself to feel the emotional pain.

“Make sure you don’t set a time limit for your social pain. Everyone moves through trauma differently,” Serani told Healthline.

In addition to missing social connections, thinking about missing them adds to the distress.

“Imagine a person in great social pain who momentarily forgot about the social circumstances that caused his or her pain. The negative feelings would evaporate,” Leary said.

Minimizing how often you think about your social situation can help.

“That’s hard to do, of course, but getting involved in intrinsically interesting activities -— hobbies, music, interesting TV or movies, exercise, and so on — will help even when you don’t initially feel like doing them. Distraction is sometimes a perfectly acceptable coping strategy. Or learn to meditate, which helps people become less caught-up by their thoughts and thus less upset by them,” said Leary.

Social pain, as well as physical pain, responds well to sensorial experiences, says Serani.

“So, make sure to rest when you can, move your body as well, look at beautiful, colorful things, listen to music, grab a hug from a loved one [you live with] or fur baby, or take a warm shower or bath, savor a cup of tea, or smell the fresh air, or a scent that soothes to reset your mind, body and soul,” she said.

If possible, prioritize connecting with people who you value most.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean to violate COVID guidelines just to get together with other people. Any sort of connection will help — email, phone calls, video-based calls, such as Zoom and FaceTime — but the more direct and personal, the better,” said Leary.

Being grateful for the ease of communication can help, too.

“Imagine if we were facing the pandemic without these communication capabilities and were still using only mailed letters to communicate,” Leary said.

Just as people snack when they’re hungry but can’t fit in a full meal, Leary says research shows that people can snack on reminders of their relationships when they can’t interact with people.

“Looking at photos, reading old letters or messages, and simply thinking about one’s relationships can help reduce negative feelings. Of course, they can also create feelings of sadness or nostalgia about the missing connection, but that’s sometimes better than social pain,” he said.

While most social pain comes and goes for both children and adults, Serani says if you can’t find relief from social pain, and are struggling consistently for two weeks or more with emotional and physical pains at work, home, or school, reach out to a mental health professional.

“[They can] assess if you need more involved assistance,” she said.

Leary agrees.

“Counselors and psychotherapists can offer strategies for dealing with feelings of disconnection, and simply having a connection with a mental health professional can, in itself, make people feel less isolated and lonely,” he said.