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Alcohol and Mental Health

Ghosting: Psychological Hide-and-Seek

July 11, 2023
25 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 11, 2023
25 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 11, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 11, 2023
25 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 11, 2023
25 min read

There’s an episode of Friends that shows “ghosting” in action: Monica and Phoebe try to steer clear of their irritating friend Amanda by dodging her calls — a plan that backfires when an unsuspecting Chandler picks up the phone and gives them away.

In real life, ghosting — which happens when someone abruptly cuts off all forms of personal communication without any explanation — is much less amusing and far more painful. The digital age seems to have provided fertile ground for ghosting to thrive. Unfortunately, it’s happened to many of us. You’re in touch with someone, maybe texting back and forth or saying hi on social media, and then — poof! — out of nowhere, the contact stops. It's as if they've slipped into a digital invisibility cloak and vanished into thin air!

But what happens in our brains when we're ghosted? And what's going on in the minds of those doing the ghosting? Let’s explore the psychology and neuroscience of ghosting and consider how to deal with the eerie silence that ghosting leaves in its wake. Ready to spot some ghosts?

The History of “Ghosts”

Although ghosting might feel like a fresh menace of the digital era, scientists who study human behavior have been familiar with this pattern for quite some time. Research by Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences, shows that social ostracism — including behaviors like ghosting — have been around for ages. We can’t blame the internet — ghosting is not as new-fangled as we thought!

The Neuroscience of Ghosting

It’s also important to note that ghosting has a basis in neuroscience — the behaviors, emotions, and reactions involved in ghosting can be traced back to specific neural mechanisms in the brain. 

When someone experiences ghosting, it often feels like a rejection, and rejection can hurt — literally. Studies have shown that the brain responds to social rejection in a way similar to physical pain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region of the brain involved in pain perception, activates when we feel socially rejected.

In ghosting, the lack of closure and the sudden disappearance of someone we are used to having in our lives can amplify this pain, as the brain struggles to make sense of what happened. The uncertainty and ambiguity can lead to continuous activation of this pain response, causing lingering discomfort.

On the other side of ghosting, the ghoster's brain is also at play. The decision to ghost may be influenced by several neural processes, including:

  • Avoidance of negative emotions. The amygdala, involved in processing emotions (including fear) might prompt a potential “ghost” to avoid confrontation or uncomfortable situations. Ghosting, in this sense, may be a way to avoid the anticipated anxiety or emotional discomfort of a face-to-face conversation.
  • Lack of empathy. A deficiency in empathy could also lead to ghosting. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is largely governed by the mirror neuron system. If this system is faulty, a person may have difficulty recognizing the emotional impact of their actions, including ghosting.
  • Decision-making and impulsivity. The prefrontal cortex — responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and ethical reasoning — also plays a role. An impulsive decision to ghost might occur if there's an imbalance in this region of the brain. Likewise, the lack of ethical reasoning might cause someone to disregard social norms and the potential hurt that ghosting can cause.

Ghosting and Dopamine

In the context of romantic relationships, ghosting may also be linked to dopamine — the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. During the early stages of a relationship, dopamine levels are typically high, creating a feeling of excitement and pleasure. However, as the novelty wears off, the reduction in dopamine can lead to a lack of interest or desire to continue the relationship, leading some individuals to ghost. (Ever meet someone on Tinder, go out on a few dates, and suddenly get radio silence on the other end? It’s annoying, but unfortunately it happens — a lot).

Spot the Ghost

There are many types of “ghosts” out there, but psychologists have identified several common contexts for this behavior.

  • Dating ghosting. Perhaps the most common type, this one happens when someone we’ve been dating, either casually or seriously, suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving a vacuum of unanswered questions. We might be planning the next date or imagining a potential future when, unexpectedly, all communication ceases.
  • Friendship ghosting. Friends can ghost, too! While friendships are often seen as more stable, they are definitely not immune to this painful phenomenon. We might have shared countless memories, secrets, and moments of camaraderie, only to find that our friend has inexplicably gone silent, refusing to reply to messages, calls, or meet-ups. The deep bonds of friendship can make this form of ghosting especially painful.
  • Social media ghosting. These days, online platforms have become the primary mode of interaction for many. Imagine having regular conversations with someone on a social media platform, sharing comments, likes, and virtual laughter, only to have them vanish from your online circle without a hint. They might even block you or deactivate their account, leaving you pondering over what went wrong.
  • Professional ghosting. The workplace is not exempt from the ghosting phenomenon, which happens when a colleague, boss, or business associate suddenly goes silent. Emails go unanswered, project collaborations stall, and the typical office rapport disappears. While sometimes this can be attributed to changing job roles or tasks, it often leaves one feeling perplexed and uncertain about their professional standing.
  • Recruitment ghosting. Job hunting is stressful, and recruitment ghosting — a relatively new variety — only exacerbates the tension. We’ve had a promising interview or perhaps even received a verbal job offer and are mentally preparing for a new chapter when suddenly the prospective employer stops responding. The waiting game begins, with hopes fading as more and more days go by without an answer.
  • Ghosting after a serious relationship. Though this one is more rare (given the profound emotional connections involved) sometimes former partners disappear after years of a committed relationship. The depth and longevity of the relationship can make this ghosting variant particularly devastating, as it's not just the loss of communication but the abrupt end of shared dreams, plans, and deep emotional ties.
  • Casual acquaintance ghosting. Perhaps we’ve struck up a casual rapport with a neighbor, a gym buddy, or someone we met at a seminar. The interactions might have been light and non-committal, but consistent. Yet, one day, they suddenly stop reciprocating the friendly nods or casual chats, leaving us wondering about the change.
  • Family ghosting. Nothing quite compares to the anguish of family ghosting. Whether it's a sibling, a parent, or a close relative, when family ties are severed without explanation, we’re left with a gaping wound. The shared history, emotional ties, and intertwined lives make the silence and distance even more challenging to process.

All About That Ghost

So what should you do when you're faced with sudden radio silence? Experts in psychology suggest the best way forward is to respect the ghoster's decision while also taking care of yourself.

It's vital to be gentle with yourself in these situations. Think of it as a mystery you may never solve, and remind yourself that that's okay. It's not about you — it's about the ghoster's choice to disappear. Ghosting is more reflective of the ghoster than the ghosted. 

Psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman advises that ghosting can lead to self-doubt. But don't let someone else's actions dictate your self-worth. In the end, “it likely tells you something about them and their shortcomings, rather than indicating that the problem lies with you,” she explains.

The Other Side of the Story

Now let's flip the coin: What if you're the one doing the ghosting? And if so, what does that say about you? 

  • Aversion to confrontation. For starters, according to evolutionary psychologist Dr. Douglas T. Kenrick, ghosting often stems from an aversion to confrontation. So, if you've ghosted someone, it's not necessarily that you intended to cause pain — perhaps you were trying to avoid your own emotional discomfort.
  • Trouble with empathy. Moreover, a tendency to ghost might mean that you have trouble understanding or considering the effects of your actions on others — a lack of empathy. If you frequently ghost others, you might be having a hard time stepping into their shoes and understanding the potential pain your disappearing act could cause.
  • Commitment phobia. Commitment phobia can stem from past experiences or traumas, such as a painful breakup, an unhappy family environment, or witnessing problematic relationships. Fear of rejection or abandonment, fear of losing one's individuality, or fear of feeling trapped can also fuel commitment phobia. As a result, it might lead you to abruptly end a relationship rather than to communicate your fears or discomfort. 
  • Avoidant attachment style. Lastly, frequent ghosting might point to a pattern psychologists refer to as an avoidant attachment style. This can stem from various factors, such as past traumas or deeply ingrained beliefs about relationships.

As we've seen, ghosting can leave the other person feeling lost and confused. So, before you go invisible, take a moment to think about the potential fallout.

When Being the Ghost Is the Way to Go

That said, if the person in question has harmed you — or is overly intrusive and won’t take a more subtle hint — it’s a different ballgame. There are times when the no-contact route is not only okay but essential for your mental health — and maybe even your physical safety. In that case, ghost away — no regrets!

Ghosting and Alcohol

Another side to the dynamics of ghosting and its impact has to do with what happens when alcohol enters the picture.

The act of ghosting and the dynamics of alcohol consumption can, at times, become intertwined in a person’s life. Many aspects of our personal and social lives can be influenced by alcohol, including our communication habits and how we handle relationships:

  • Alcohol and impaired judgment. Alcohol is known to impair judgment. This alteration in decision-making can sometimes lead to hasty actions, including ghosting someone without fully realizing the consequences. A person under the influence may decide that avoiding a confrontation or conversation is the best course of action. However, when sobriety returns, the weight of such a decision might bring on feelings of guilt, shame, or regret.
  • Escapism and avoidance. For some, alcohol serves as an escape from the pressures and stresses of daily life. Similarly, ghosting can be an act of escapism — avoiding the emotional effort required in a confrontation or ending a relationship. Both behaviors might be used as coping mechanisms, but neither offers a long-term solution. Instead, they often introduce new complications and challenges.
  • Amplified emotions. Alcohol can amplify emotions. An person might feel slighted or hurt while drinking and decide to ghost as a knee-jerk reaction to these intensified feelings. Unfortunately, this doesn't allow for proper reflection on whether ghosting is the right course of action or if the emotions felt were a temporary booze-fueled spike.
  • The morning after. Alcohol might lead to ghosting, but it can also lead to "un-ghosting." After a few drinks, someone might decide to break their silence and re-initiate contact, driven by heightened emotions or feelings of guilt. This on-and-off communication can be confusing and hurtful to the other party.
  • Sobriety and reflection. For those trying to cut back or quit drinking, recognizing the impact alcohol has on relationships can be pivotal. Without the clouded judgment alcohol brings, we might find it easier to address issues head-on rather than resorting to ghosting. Quitting or cutting back can provide clarity, allowing for more open communication and better understanding of personal boundaries.

Your Ghost-Busting Guide

Here are some ways for dealing with ghosting:

  • Don't take it personally. Ghosting is more about the ghoster than you. Don't blame yourself for their disappearance. Instead, try to consider the ghoster's perspective — they might be dealing with their own struggles.
  • Heal your brain. Recovering from ghosting isn't just about time — it's about neural healing. Activities that promote positive feelings, such as spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies, or even seeking therapy, can activate the release of oxytocin and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are associated with feelings of love, happiness, and well-being and can help the brain recover from the neural distress caused by ghosting.
  • Self-care is key. Focus on your well-being. Eat your favorite food, enjoy a walk, or just revel in some alone time. If you’re ready, reach out to friends and family. They're your partners in this game of hide-and-seek.
  • Avoid becoming a ghost. If you're considering ghosting, try to communicate your feelings instead. It's always better to be visible than invisible.
  • Celebrate your resilience. Remember, someone else’s actions don’t define you — your resilience does. Every experience — including being ghosted — is a part of your life journey.
  • Digital detox. If the ghosting happened online, consider a digital detox to distance yourself from the incident. This break can give you some time and space to heal and allows for re-evaluation and a fresh start when you feel ready to reconnect.
  • Laugh it off. Humor can be a powerful coping mechanism, as many studies suggest. Watch a comedy show, share a joke with friends, or just reminisce about funny moments in your life.
  • Cognitive restructuring. This involves changing negative thought patterns — a technique known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Recognize your negative thoughts, challenge them, and replace them with positive ones. 

Try Bibliotherapy

Finally, dive into books or literature on self-growth, relationships, or resilience. Why? Literature offers solace, guidance, and sometimes, the exact words or wisdom needed to navigate through challenging times. Here are a few examples that can help with the aftermath of ghosting:

1. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller

This book explores attachment theory, helping readers understand their own attachment styles and how they play out in relationships. It can offer insights into why some people ghost and how to deal with it based on your own attachment style.

2. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher

Fisher, an anthropologist, explores the biological basis of love and attachment. Understanding the science behind our feelings can sometimes alleviate the personal blame or confusion experienced after being ghosted.

3. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

While not strictly about ghosting or relationships, this book touches on self-worth, acceptance, and mindfulness. It can help readers cope with the feelings of rejection and abandonment that ghosting often induces.

4. Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships by Marni Feuerman

As the title suggests, this book delves specifically into the phenomenon of ghosting and breadcrumbing in relationships. Feuerman offers insights into why people engage in such behaviors and how to navigate them.

5. Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang

A different take on the concept of rejection, Jiang's experiments with seeking out rejection can be empowering for anyone struggling with the feelings of being ghosted.

Embrace the Journey

So, there you have it — the world of ghosting, its roots, impacts, and what it says about us. Let's face it: navigating the realm of relationships can sometimes feel like maneuvering through a maze with moving walls. Ghosting, with its lingering questions and lack of closure, can be one such unexpected twist. But here's the bright side: for every ghosting incident, there's a chance to grow, to understand, and most importantly, to connect more genuinely the next time around.

Instead of seeing ghosting as a dead-end, view it as a detour leading to newer, more vibrant paths of connection. Maybe it's an opportunity to rediscover old friendships, to indulge in that hobby you'd shelved, or simply to get to know yourself a bit better. Remember, it's not the ghosts of the past but the adventures of the present and future that define us!

Summary FAQs

1. What is ghosting?

Ghosting happens when someone suddenly cuts off all forms of personal communication without any explanation, making it feel as though they've vanished from your life.

2. Is ghosting a new phenomenon with the advent of the digital age?

No, while it might seem like a product of the digital age, ghosting, as a form of social ostracism, has been around for a long time. It's not exclusive to our modern era.

3. What are some common contexts in which ghosting occurs?

Ghosting can happen in various scenarios, including dating, friendships, social media interactions, professional settings, recruitment processes, long-term relationships, casual acquaintances, and even within families.

4. How should you cope with being ghosted?

It's essential to not take it personally and focus on self-care. Engage in activities that uplift you, connect with your support network, avoid replicating the behavior, and remind yourself that your resilience defines you.

5. What might motivate someone to ghost another person?

Some reasons people ghost include an aversion to confrontation, a lack of empathy, commitment phobia, or an avoidant attachment style. It's often more about the ghoster's internal struggles than the person being ghosted.

6. Is it ever okay to ghost someone?

In cases where the person has harmed you or poses a risk to your mental or physical safety, going no-contact or "ghosting" may be necessary for your well-being.

7. How does alcohol relate to ghosting?

Alcohol can cloud judgment, lower inhibitions, and impair decision-making, possibly leading someone to ghost another. Those trying to cut back or quit alcohol should be aware of its potential role in exacerbating feelings around ghosting or influencing the decision to ghost someone.

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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