Given that most of us are between the ages of 18-21 I will assume that we’ve all had our hearts broken at least once or twice. Heart break can be caused by many different things, and that’s what makes this mind-numbing emotion easily recognizable by nearly every person in the world. Such as the physical/emotional loss of a loved one, or pet. It can even be caused by the feelings of betrayal, disappointment, and the realization that the love of a significant other is drifting far apart from where it originally was. Feelings of anxiety and panic -“Are we breaking up” -usually precede this heartbreaking emotion.
For those of you reading that statement and going “I can’t relate,” well you my friend, are very lucky. Getting your heart broken absolutely sucks. When your heart is broken it can feel like the end of the world. The type of heart break I’m unfortunately most familiar with is the heart break that follows a failed relationship. The heartbreak that has led me to binge eating, binge crying, and most noteworthy, Netflix binge-watching.
Side Note: after getting my heart broken the summer following my senior year, I watched the entire series of Naruto Shippuden (anime lovers unite). Yes, from the beginning. Yes, I was in a very dark place.
Lets Talk About The Physical Pain
Anyone who has ever gone through a heart break can attest to experiencing some type of physical pain, “My heart hurts!” This is due to the fact that emotions affect the physical health of an individual far more than we often realize. But I was curious as to how exactly do our body’s feel this emotional loss; in other words, what is it that brings the physical pain to our heart breaks? What is the Science behind it?
Can Heart Beaks Occur -Literally?
There have been several studies on heartbreaks and how it affects people. Most of which find a connection between emotional pain and the literal form of heart break -heart attack. The emotional stress of heartbreaks is harmful and it’s said to be a possible cause of what is called Broken Heart Syndrome (Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy), laid out in the image below.
Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, something similar to a heart attack. occurs as a result of the body becoming overwhelmed with severe emotional/physical stress. These stressors can range from losing someone you love to fatal accidents. The exact cause of this is still up for debate but many experts believe that the surge of hormones (ex. adrenaline) brought on by emotional or physical stress essentially ‘stun’ the heart, triggering the heart muscle cells in it’s main chamber, the left ventricle, to change, This inevitably effects the way the heart contracts. Although it doesn’t completely kill the heart muscle, like a real heart attack, it sort of renders it useless.
The Science Behind Heartbreak
In 2010, at The University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, a team of researchers, under the leadership of psychologist C. DeWall, Published a study examining the possible connection and overlap between physical pain and emotional (social) pain.
The first experiment contained a group of 62 healthy individuals who agreed to take 1,000 mg daily of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) or a placebo. Each night, the subjects then reported to researchers, using a version of the “Hurt Feelings Scale,” how much they experienced social pain. The Hurt Feelings scale is a valid tool widely accepted by psychologist to measure one’s reported social pain. What researchers discovered was that ‘Hurt Feelings’ and overall social pain decreased over time in participants taking the daily acetaminophen, while the placebo subjects didn’t show any signs of change. There was no significant change in the levels of positive emotions observed in either group, that remained rather stable. The results of this study thus indicate that by impacting emotions linked to ‘hurt feelings’ using acetaminophen may decrease social pain over time.
Although DeWall was very excited about the findings, he knew the next step was to identify the neural mechanisms that lay beneath the results. This led to a second experiment.
In this second experiment, unlike the first, 25 healthy individuals were told to take 2,000 mg daily (twice the dose of the first experiment) of either acetaminophen or a placebo. After about three weeks of being on the pills, these participants in a computer game designed to create feelings of social rejection. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (f MRI) was used during the game and the findings were that in the brain regions associated with social pain as well as ones with the component of physical pain, acetaminophen decreased subjects neural responses to social rejection. In these regions, also known as the the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, the parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain lit up in the subjects taking the placebo, where as the subjects taking acetaminophen pills displayed significantly less brain activity in these areas as they responded to rejection.
The research results showed that the areas of the brain that resonate with emotional discomfort is also where physical pain is experienced. Which then offers and explanation for the subject that were taking the acetaminophen pill reported not having any physical pain yet were experiencing less feelings of hurt and rejection than that of the participants that were only taking the placebo substance.
Someone who is considered an expert in romantic relationships and co-authored the Kentucky study, Geoff MacDonald, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto stated that the centers of our brain that feel pain can not really differentiate between what we consider to be physical vs. emotional pain. He also reminded us that physical pain, is just as serious as emotional pain and we shouldn’t dismiss the ‘touchy-feely’ aspect of it for the sake of it being superficial.
So there you have it. Next time, you are heart broken and someone tells you to “get over it” or “it’s not that deep” or something else insensitive along those lines, tell them that your heart is physically hurt . Then, show them this as proof that it’s not just you being whiny, you are scientifically justified to be sad.