Published by Dove Medical Press

Karoline Pieritz, Sarina J Schäfer, Jana Strahler, Winfried Rief, Frank Euteneuer

Background: Experiences of social pain due to social exclusion may be processed in similar neural systems that process experiences of physical pain. The present study aimed to extend the findings on social exclusion and pain by examining the impact of social exclusion on an affective (ie, heat pain tolerance) and a sensory component of pain (ie, heat pain intensity). Whether a potential effect may be moderated by chronic life stress, social status, or social support was further examined.

Materials and methods: A community-based sample of 59 women was studied. Social exclusion and inclusion were experimentally manipulated by using a virtual ball-tossing game called Cyberball in which participants were randomly assigned to either being excluded or being included by two other virtual players. Heat pain tolerance and intensity were assessed before and after the game. Potential psychosocial moderators were assessed via a questionnaire.

Results: The main finding of this study is that chronic stress moderates the impact of social exclusion on pain tolerance (p<0.05). When chronic stress was high, socially excluded participants showed a lower heat pain tolerance than participants who were socially included. Contrary to the authors’ hypothesis, pain sensitivity was increased in socially included participants compared with socially excluded participants after the game (p<0.05).

Conclusion: Higher levels of chronic stress may enhance the vulnerability of affective pain processing to acute social exclusion.