Study: High resting blood pressure linked to reduced sensitivity to social pain

People with high resting blood pressure tend to be less sensitive to social rejection, according to new research published in Biological Psychology.

Previous studies have found that higher resting blood pressure is associated with lower sensitivity to physical pain. But researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and UCLA were interested in seeing if this extended to social pain as well.

“Social pain – the unpleasant experience evoked by actual or potential damage to one’s sense of social connection or social value – often results from relationship breakups, social snubs, or the loss of close loved ones. Why might social pains ‘hurt’? One possibility is that social pains are experienced as aversive because the biological mechanisms for physical pain processing were coopted by social attachment systems,” the authors of the study explained.

“That is, monitoring and maintaining one’s social relationships may be critical for wellbeing and survival. Consequently, the mechanisms that process and enable responses to the dangers from physical pain, including alerting one to and helping one regulate pain, may also process and enable responses to the dangers from social rejection and loss.”

In three studies, with 317 healthy participants in total, the researchers found that those with higher resting blood pressure tended to also report lower sensitivity to social pain.

Participants with higher resting blood pressure were less likely to agree with statements like “I sometimes take criticism too hard,” “If someone dislikes me, I tend to avoid him/her,” and “I am very sensitive to any signs that a person might not want to talk to me” compared to those with lower resting blood pressure.

This was true even after controlling for a number of factors, such as heart rate, body-mass index and neuroticism.

“The results add to an existing body of evidence that suggests that physical and social pain might share biological substrates and extends this evidence base to the cardiovascular system,” the researchers concluded.

The study, “Taking rejection to heart: Associations between blood pressure and sensitivity to social pain“, was authored by Tristen K. Inagaki, J. Richard Jennings, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Peter J. Gianaros.