Breakups are painful. Anyone who has experienced one can relate. The feelings seem to permeate every aspect of the mind and body. Thoughts seem scattered and cognition impaired. The body can even go through physical pain because of heartbreak. Physical symptoms may include acne, sore muscles or sickness like “broken heart syndrome.” Love is a risky affair, and even risk-hardy couples such as these poker players can suffer a bad beat.
A recent post in Psychology Today explores and collates the reasons why love hurts. Turns out, there’s a lot happening in the brain…
A study published in the PNAS Journal aimed to examine romantic rejection in terms of the areas of the brain which are activated. Forty participants, all of whom had suffered involuntary breakups in the past six months, were asked to look at photos of their ex while recalling their romantic turmoil. Recalling the romantic rejection activated areas of the brain associated with physical pain, and the pain experienced was comparable to “nearly unbearable” levels of physical pain.
This study goes a long way in explaining why the symptoms of heartbreak often include feelings of real physical pain and comfort. The same areas of the brain are active. Yet we rarely experience “nearly unbearable” levels of physical pain for longer than a few moments. If we did, we would soon pass out. Still, the pain of breakups can last for months or even years.
A similar study published in the Journal of Neuropsychology used MRI scans to take a closer look at the effects of romantic rejection and loss on the brain. The results were perhaps even more shocking. The brain shows high levels of activity in areas that are associated with dependence. In other words, participants showed symptoms like if they were withdrawing from a substance.
That’s right, love and loss cause withdrawals that can impair our ability to think, focus and function. Yet the researchers point out that we do not take this mental state as seriously as we should, considering its impact on the body and mind. I would have to agree. Breakups cause a lot of pain and suffering, yet we often forget to account for this in ourselves and others, instead, expecting top performances in work and in our personal lives soon after.
Guy Winch, the author of the blog post on Psychology Today, adds that the brain has a rather annoying tendency to generate intrusive thoughts that remind us of our ex. Memories flood our mind’s eye, frustrations and what-ifs. These thoughts can reopen the wounds and trigger the initial emotional pain of the breakup.
So, what can we do? Love requires us to be vulnerable. It’s inherently risky. And there’s no way to experience a breakup from a loving relationship without feeling pain and withdrawal. These feelings happen as reactions in our brains, and there’s no stopping them. What we can do is understand and accept what is happening. You are not going crazy. Your pain won’t last forever. The heartache is a normal human response to a normal human experience. Go easy on yourself and take it slow!
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