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What happens psychologically when you ignore someone?

Being ignored can be a painful experience. It signals rejection and makes people feel invisible. But why does being ignored hurt so much, and what are the psychological effects? In this article, we’ll explore what happens in our brains when we feel ignored, the impacts on mental health, and tips for coping.

The Brain’s Response to Rejection

Our brains are wired to connect. So when someone ignores us, it triggers the same pain centers that activate when we experience physical harm. fMRI scans show that social rejection lights up the same regions linked to physical pain.

This painful response has evolutionary roots. In prehistoric times, being ostracized could be a death sentence, so we evolved an early warning sign to change behaviors and avoid rejection.

Even perceived slights activate this neural alarm bell. We don’t need to be completely ignored to feel distress. Even small signs of inattention can set it off.

Key Areas Activated

Several key areas of the brain are activated when we feel socially rejected:

  • Anterior cingulate cortex – Involved in emotional pain processing and the distress from social exclusion.
  • Insula – Processes physical and emotional pain. Activates when we feel left out.
  • Right ventral prefrontal cortex – Generates distressing emotions and makes us reflect on the reasons for exclusion.

This pain response happens automatically. We don’t need to think much about the implications of being ignored. Our brains instantly react as if facing a real threat.

Psychological Impacts

Being ignored or excluded doesn’t just hurt in the moment. Ongoing exclusion can lead to psychological wounds with lasting impacts.

Lower Self-Esteem

When people repeatedly ignore us, we’re more likely to blame ourselves. Thoughts like “I’m not interesting enough” or “I must be unlikable” creep in. This self-criticism chips away at our sense of self-worth.

Over time, these small blows can dramatically impact self-esteem. In one study, being excluded for just 5 minutes lowered self-esteem by 30-50%.

Increased Anxiety and Depression

The pain of being ignored can lead to heightened anxiety. We might obsess over what we did wrong or worry about other social situations.

Exclusion also raises the risk for depression. One study found social rejection makes people more susceptible to depressive symptoms. The depressive effects can linger too. Even after inclusion, people continue feeling depressed.

Loss of Belonging

Humans have an innate need to belong. So when people ignore us, especially close friends or groups, it threatens this core need.

We’re more sensitive to rejection from those we identify with. Being ignored by an in-group delivers an extra sting compared to general social exclusion.

Without that sense of belonging, people can feel alienated, betrayed, and socially anxious. These feelings make it harder to connect with others.

Aggression and Withdrawal

There are two common responses to exclusion – aggression or withdrawal.

Some people respond to being ignored with hostility and attempts to hurt others. They try to provoke reactions in any way possible.

Others go in the opposite direction, becoming more withdrawn and self-isolating. They shut down socially as a self-protective measure.

Neither response creates positive outcomes. But both make sense as ways we try to defend ourselves or regain control when ignored.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Impacts

The effects of being ignored depend on how often it happens. An occasional snub hurts in the moment but likely won’t have lasting impacts. But repeated exclusion can be deeply damaging.

Timeframe Typical Response
  • Instant emotional distress
  • Momentary blow to self-esteem
  • Fleeting anger/sadness
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Increased anxiety and depression
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Withdrawal or aggression

One subtle snub likely won’t have a big impact. But repeated rejection from family, friends, or groups we identify with can cause deep psychological wounds over time.

Coping Strategies

If you’re struggling with feeling ignored, there are some effective coping strategies to try:

Examine Your Role

Before assuming all the blame, reflect on your role in the situation. Did you do anything that may have inadvertently upset the other person? If so, you could apologize or change the behavior.

If you didn’t cause the rejection, don’t take on undeserved shame. Some people ignore others for reasons that reflect their own shortcomings, like jealousy, insecurity or meanness.

Seek Supportive Relationships

Rather than fixating on those who ignore you, focus on nurturing relationships with people who make you feel cared about. Lean on friends and family who build you up. Their support can counteract the sting of exclusion.

Limit Time With Toxic People

You can’t control whether someone ignores you. But you can control your own time and attention. Limit interactions with people who make you feel excluded. Reduce their role in your life when possible.

Focus on Strengths

Make a list of your positive qualities and things you’re proud of. Refer to it when you start feeling bad about yourself due to exclusion. This helps maintain a balanced view of your strengths and weaknesses.

Practice Self-Compassion

Rather than beating yourself up if someone ignores you, talk to yourself like you would a friend. Say things like “This hurts, but I’m going to be okay.” Self-compassion reduces the distress of rejection.

Get Therapy Support

If feelings of anxiety, depression or low self-worth persist, seek professional counseling. Therapy gives you tools to heal from emotional wounds and build resilience. Support groups can help too by normalizing your experiences.

Prevention Tips

While we can’t prevent all social rejection, some habits make us less likely to be ignored:

  • Listen attentively to others and ask engaging questions.
  • Avoid interrupting or dominating conversations.
  • Give compliments and express appreciation.
  • Follow through on commitments.
  • Don’t take disagreements personally.

Basically, being a responsive, caring friend makes people want to interact with you. That natural magnetism makes it less likely you’ll end up feeling ignored.

When to Get Help

Normal feelings of hurt are expected when ignored. But if the emotional distress becomes overwhelming or lasts for weeks, it’s time to get professional support. Signs you need help include:

  • Inability to stop thinking about the situation
  • Severe mood changes like depression or rage
  • Withdrawing from family/friends
  • Trouble sleeping or eating
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others

Seeking counseling doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means the pain is more than you can handle alone right now. There’s no shame in getting support.

The Takeaway

Being ignored stings because of the way our brains are wired. It can damage self-esteem, heighten anxiety/depression, and threaten our need to belong. How much it impacts us depends on how often it happens.

Occasional snubs likely won’t have lasting effects. But repeated rejection can cause spiraling psychological wounds over time. There are healthy ways to cope, like spending time with supportive people and practicing self-compassion. If the distress becomes overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling.

While we can’t control whether others ignore us, we can control who we give our time and energy. Surround yourself with people who make you feel accepted. Limit interactions with those who invalidate you. With patience and compassion for yourself, you can overcome the pain of exclusion.