Is Heartbreak More Than Just an Emotion?


I recently went through a breakup, and the sadness I felt was eerily similar to how I felt after the death of a loved one; my chest hurt, I was increasingly tired and unable to focus, and I just felt overall depressed. I expected to feel these emotional reactions, but I was somewhat surprised to feel physical pain rather than just those negative emotions and thoughts. When people go through a breakup, they always say their heart was broken, and that pain in felt in my chest honestly felt like my heart was hurting. So I began to wonder, is heartbreak just a saying to describe the feeling of lost love, or is it an actual physical feeling?

The American Heart Association actually defines Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiopyopathy, as a sudden intense chest pain that can be at first thought to be a heart attack. This occurs because of an increase in stress hormones that is caused by a particularly stressful and emotional experience. The heart physically becomes larger and isn’t able to effectively pump blood to the rest of your body, but no arteries are blocked like during a heart attack. This, however, is a severe physical reaction to a breakup or feeling of loss. Although most of us may feel that hurt in our chest, it’s usually not this drastic.

So to look into the milder cases of a broken heart, I first needed to find out how our body reacts to love, as love is a fairly subjective concept. But rooting the idea in science would help me qualify and quantify the effects of this somewhat abstract feeling. Helen Fisher used fMRIs to study 17 people who were “in love” and examine the effects of love on the brain. When thinking about his/her loved partner, two areas in the subject’s brain that are highly concentrated with dopamine and therefore associated with pleasure, reward and motivation showed increased activity. Fisher concluded from this that dopamine and reward pathways in the brain lead to the arousal that occurs for people that are in love. In other words, love is mainly an innate animal tendency related to motivation, not an emotion.

Fisher then decided to further her research to examine the effects of breakups on the brain, which perfectly coincided with my train of thought and interest as well. The researchers used fMRI scans to study 15 people—10 women and 5 men—who had just been broken up with by their partners but still were in love with them. The subjects were shown a photograph of the person they were still in love with and a photograph of a familiar person. These photographs were split up by a task that required the attention of the subject and therefore distracted them, allowing their brain activity to reset.

While looking at photos of the person that had rejected them, the areas of the brain associated with gains and losses, craving and emotion regulation, and reward were activated. The increased activation of the reward system areas are consistently activated whether one is experiencing love, or lost love, but the activation of the other areas suggest that heartbreak has very specific and acute physical responses. Another interesting finding was that the same area that is activated during the consumption and craving of cocaine also lit up when the subject viewed the picture of their loved one. This suggests that love is like addiction, and the loss of love can physically feel like withdrawal. And not surprisingly, areas associated with physical pain and pain regulation were more active when viewing a photograph of their loved one, but the greater number of days since the person had been broken up with, the less activity was shown in the brain. This shows that time really does heal.

This study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal that examined 21 healthy women and 19 healthy men who had within the past six months gone through a break-up where they were the ones who were dumped showed similar results to the above study. They found that the same areas of the brain lit up when the participants were burned by a hot cup of coffee as when they looked at a photo of the one who broke their heart while also remembering past experiences with their loved one.

The connection between the emotion and physical parts of our body really do make sense. In an article in the Scientific American, two psychology professors discussed the physical manifestations of negative emotions such as heartbreak. They say that heartache is a combination of emotional stress and physical manifestations of that stress such as tightening of the muscles, increased heart rate, odd stomach activity and shortness of breath. They also state that emotional pain and physical pain use some of the same areas of the brain, but we still don’t know the mechanism behind how our emotions lead to those physical sensations.

But in terms of how to cure that heartache, in my experience, I too found that time made the pain decrease, however this report discussed some interesting information about another possible way to help heal your broken heart. Two experiments in which the subjects took acetaminophen or a placebo every day for three weeks showed that the drug led to a decrease in social pain, even though the drug is typically taken for physical pain and discomfort. Also, FMRI scans showed that the drug led to a decrease in the brain’s response to social rejection. The areas of the brain which are involved with stressful situations were not as active. This illustrates a significant association between social and physical pain, although I do not know enough about how the study was conducted to declare if there is actually causation involved.

So, it seems as though that heartbreak we feel really does have some ties to the brain and our bodily sensations. But time really does heal, and focusing your mental energy on other positive activities will help to decrease that pain in your chest. It will eventually go away.

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