What Happens to Your Brain When You Feel Left Out?

The cortisol effect is no joke

Drew Barrymore from Never Been Kissed feeling left out at cafeteria

FOMO? More like LOMO! What we wouldn’t do for a night alone with a glass of wine and some binge-worthy reality TV after a busy week…that is, until we spot Lauren P., Lauren W. and Jessica from sales all posting the same Insta story replete with margaritas. Is the office crew hanging out without us? Did our invite get lost in the mail? Heartbeat increases. Attention from the aforementioned reality TV series wanes. Now we just feel…crappy.

Haven’t we grown out of feeling left out? We wish. Some things, like that feeling of being excluded, stow away in our baggage and surprise us no matter how far we’ve moved on from the playground. But why don’t we outgrow it? We talked with an expert in psychology and neuroscience to understand what happens in our brains when Lauren P., Lauren W., and Jessica from sales hang out without us.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas is a leading expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other prosocial skills that bolster human happiness. She is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she directs the GGSC’s research fellowship program, is a co-instructor of its Science of Happiness and Science of Happiness at Work online courses, and runs key study initiatives like Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. She is also one of the scientists behind the largest citizen science project on joy, The Big Joy Project, which demonstrates the profound influence of using science-backed acts of joy daily. (An analysis of the data for the first time here with UC Berkeley, and people are still able to sign-up and participate in the project!).

Your brain is actually triggered by feeling left out

That left-out feeling? Scientists refer to it as social exclusion, and per Dr. Emiliana, neuroimaging studies have found that the brain registers social exclusion the same way it does physical pain (sans the activation linked to a specific body part).

Your heart rate, blood pressure and more may alter

Says Dr. Emiliana: “The regions [in the brain] that respond to social exclusion are involved in self-evaluation, feelings of vigilance to threat and tracking associations between social information and emotional experiences—in this case—linking social experience with distress.” No wonder it’s harder to enjoy that glass of wine—seeing that trio with margaritas put you in distress. In fact, physiologically, social exclusion can increase your cortisol response, which, as Dr. Emiliana explains, puts the body into a state of self-defensive or escape-readiness with changes like increased heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils and sweating. Feeling left out feels visceral because it IS visceral. The cortisol response reallocates blood flow away from the viscera and other non-essential organs, and people often experience this as uneasiness in their stomach area.

And good decision-making goes out the window

Changes to your brain and body linked to social exclusion might make you more vigilant to any and all perceived threatening information, which is a high-arousal, self-preservation mode. In other words, your brain and body are priming you for fight, flight or freeze. But try to avoid sending off those rage texts, because when you feel threatened, says Dr. Emiliana, information processing is narrowed to focus closely on the situation linked to being excluded, “so people may fail to notice other things that could be restorative, uplifting, or otherwise sources or safety.” For instance, maybe you forgot you told Lauren W. over salads that you were gonna stay in tonight.

How to overcome these feelings in the moment

Can’t an adult woman just enjoy a night in without being pulled back to the 8th grade cafeteria? If you're feeling especially vulnerable to these feelings, try some self-protective measures—delete Instagram for the weekend or mute that friend who tends to rub you the wrong way. But if you do find yourself spiraling, try to calm your brain with breathwork. “The simplest strategy for overcoming these feelings in the moment is to take a deep, full breath, and exhale slowly three to five times (or more),” instructs Dr. Emiliana. It goes back to the cortisol: “Exhaling slowly is a way to calm the cortisol-activated stress response, and begin to unwind the feelings of distress and threat.” Dr. Emiliana says you can also try a restorative affirmation. Place your hand over your heart and remind yourself about a person who reliably includes and supports you. Say to yourself, for example, "[Your name] feels embarrassed and confused, but so many people in the world, like Arjun, truly care about [your name] and want her to be safe and feel loved." OK, now back to your solo night in.  

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Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...