What Disappointing News Does to Your Body

The science behind why setbacks burn so bad.

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Dec 20 2016, 1:00pm

It's almost a funny joke now: The alarm goes off in the morning, and my husband rolls over in bed and says, "Hey—Donald Trump is President." (It's sort of like waking up from the nightmare that your dog died and realizing it's true over and over again.) Only, as of last night, it's finally official: The electoral college failed to revolt, as many hoped it would, handing Trump the 270 votes required to win the Presidency.  

If you're a Democrat, in this case—especially one who was still in denial over the incoming administration—news like this has a particularly chilling effect. That's because disappointment, no matter how it's caused, triggers a very predictable physiological response: The limbic system in your brain—all the parts that work together to generate emotion—fires up. Something bad is happening. Your lateral habenula (a small region of the brain scientists have dubbed 'the disappointment center') lights up and shoots off directions to the midbrain to halt the production of dopamine, also known as the brain's pleasure chemical. Without the hormone, you start feeling rejected and disconnected from your expectations. This isn't happening. 

As you begin to process the bad news, the stress hormone cortisol seeps into your bloodstream. (A study done on the night of the 2008 US Presidential election found that McCain supporters—aka election losers—experienced a surge in cortisol while Obama supporters' cortisol levels remained stable.) Your heart rate quickens, muscles tense, and the feeling of defeat turns into total and utter dismay. Sleep is a joke.

Disappointment—whether it's from a life-altering job you didn't get or crawling into bed at night and realizing the sheets are still in the wash—blows. We're also only just starting to understand how it works in the brain. But it could be the reason we're alive: "It's an evolutionary response to maximize our survival—we feel disappointment deeply so we don't make the same mistake again in the future," says neuroscientist Christophe Proulx, a professor at Laval University in Quebec. If you're an animal in the wild, you don't leave your food out unprotected after a grubby gopher steals it. If you're a Cleveland Indians fan, you don't bet $5,000 on the next World Series. And if you're a Dem, you work your ass off over the next four years to avoid a two-term Trump.

But what happens when that uncomfortable feeling won't go away? When a letdown lingers—often longer than the high of having an expectation met—it's a sign you probably had more to lose than gain, says Proulx. (When it hangs around too long, and you start over-processing those disappointment signals, depression sets in.) 

The hoarder that is our brain stockpiles disappointing memories to help us learn, so every time we become disappointed, all our other disappointing memories tag along. The emotions that follow a letdown have a pretty predictable sequence, says psychologist Mary C. Lamia, author of Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings. First, we withdraw (think: Instagram blackouts). Next, we avoid our feelings (order the shots of bourbon). Third, we attack ourselves (I clearly live in a bubble and am so damn ignorant about the rest of the world). Finally, we attack others (cue the Facebook red wedding). 

Pulling yourself out of the dumps is possible—there's nothing quite like a rage-fueled run to reset your brain—but don't forget that not getting our way is also what keeps us from becoming arrogant assholes. We all face disappointment eventually; it's humbling, and then the world moves forward. Lamia's advice: "Sit with disappointment, look it in the eye, and listen to what it can tell you." 

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