How Rejection Affects Your Health

Dealing with Rejection - UCLA Total Wellness

After a long and arduous application process, perhaps the last thing you’d want is an email that begins with “We regret to inform you…”, “Thank you so much for applying…”, or “We appreciate your time and energy…”.

As painful as these words can be, however, we are unfortunately going to have to face rejection from time to time. As college students, we regularly face these sorts of tough applications, from applying to competitive clubs, to internships, to post-grad jobs, and to graduate schools.

However, those rejection emails don’t need to have the final word. Knowing about the effects of failure and rejection on our health, and having strategies to deal with these types of situations can help us turn our rejections into opportunities. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll be convinced that while failure and rejection have the potential to impact our health, we can learn to view these situations as gifts.


How rejection affects your health

In our modern society, rejection can take many forms. In fact, smaller versions of rejection can happen almost every day—for example, when a friend replies that they can’t go to lunch. Generally, most people don’t experience the pain of rejection from these scenarios. However, many situations—such as applying for a job, reaching out for a date, or submitting artwork for consideration—can evoke these painful feelings in anyone. [1].

Rejection and Mental Health 

Like physical injuries, care and time is required to heal from rejection. When we experience rejection, our self-esteem faces a direct attack, and continuing to blame ourselves only prolongs the wound. [1] Without allowing ourselves to heal, each instance of rejection builds upon others, creating a weight that hurts us throughout daily life. While it may seem constructive to continually assess the reasons for a particular rejection, doing so actually inhibits social interaction and degrades personal relationships with others and ourselves.

Eric Wesselman, PhD calls this period of self-reflection the “appraisal stage”, in which victims of rejection assess and formulate their actions moving forward. [2] In this stage, we are more likely to conform to others’ opinions and mimic the actions of those that surround us, contributing to a loss of self-identity and confidence to speak to our beliefs.

Rejection does not only feed off of our emotional well-being, but it also impacts our mental capabilities. In one study, those who were asked to recall instances of rejection also scored lower on tests of IQ, short-term memory, and decision making. [1] 

When hurt, it seems to be ingrained into our survival instincts to heal ourselves as soon as possible, but the temporary cognitive impact immediately following rejection may lead to rash decisions that only worsen the emotional impact, escalating the situation to much more difficult terms. 

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Rejection and Physical Health

While the health effects of rejection are often thought to be mental, our bodies respond to rejection and physical pain quite similarly. In fact, when study participants were shown photos of someone that had recently broken up with them, the same areas of their brain were activated as in response to physical pain. [2]

One study found that Tylenol inhibits the pain caused by rejection, as participants who were asked to recall an instance of rejection experienced less emotional pain than those who were given a placebo. [1]

Thousands of years ago, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors banded together to scrape a meal together or escape the threat of outside groups, lack of acceptance was a matter of life and death. As a result, our species gradually developed a mechanism to avoid this social ostracization: when our ancestors experienced rejection, their brains mimicked the feeling of physical pain. [1] Back then, this warning system was incredibly useful—as soon as our ancestors felt the psychological pain of rejection, they acted accordingly and as a result were able to stay within the relative safety of their group. However, while our lives are very different today, those brain pathways still linger around. 

Rejection and Social Health

Rejection in the form of ostracization can cause victims to become aggressive and violent towards their environment in response to a dissatisfaction of the fundamental need to belong. This becomes counterintuitive as responding to ostracism with aggression leads to further social rejection.

As C. Nathan Dewall, PhD explains, “Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships.” [2] As such, our peers and loved ones that surround us are as essential to our health as we are to theirs. 

In facing rejection, it may be tempting to hide and be alone, but this only creates a disconnect with our social environment and removes us from the supportive and loving relationships that we need.

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How to Cope with Rejection

Although rejection can impact our health, luckily there are many things we can do to help us cope with those feelings. For example, committing to self-care can be a great way to manage anxious or depressed moods while we are experiencing rejection. [3]

Personally, the summer internship search can be a grueling process: it can be incredibly dejecting to spend hours scrolling through LinkedIn and perfecting cover letters, only to receive a “no”. In those cases, it is important to know our limits, making sure to step away from the Indeed page when we need to, and taking some time to do things that make us happy. 

According to psychiatrist Fredric Neuman, knowing the chances of being successful ahead of time can also help us mitigate the painful feelings of rejection. As he writes, “If the odds are long, that is not a reason for not trying; it is a reason not to be discouraged by failure.” [4] If we know, for example, that we are applying for a job at a well-known company, we can keep in mind that probably hundreds of other applicants are competing for the same role. While this knowledge might not stop us from experiencing rejection, it can give us the perspective to tolerate it. 

Finally, Dr. Neuman suggests that we remember that rejection is not necessarily a reflection of who we are. He points out that many different factors can lead to a rejection besides what we have written or how we present ourselves [4]. As someone who tends to take things personally, I hope to implement this tip in my own life: separating ourselves from our rejection can help protect us from the pain and allow us to not give up. 

Bottom Line

We hope that this article gave you some useful background on rejection and some tips to deal with it. What we’d love for you to take from this article, however, is the knowledge that you are not alone. True, the feeling of receiving a “no” in any space can feel painful and isolating, and in a way, that is exactly the evolutionary mechanism is meant to do. However, when we experience that feeling, we are in the company of all of our fellow humans - and we have the potential to turn our failures into gifts. 

Check out The “We Regret to Inform You” Project by SEARCH to learn more about how successful professors handled past rejections.


  1. “10 Surprising Facts About Rejection.” (2013). 

  2. “The Pain of Social Rejection.” American Psychology Association. (2012). 

  3. “4 Ways To Care For Your Mental Health While On The Job Search.” (2019).

  4. “How to Cope With Rejection.” (2013).

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