Ever wondered why it feels as though your heart physically hurts after a break-up? There’s a lot more to it than you may think. By Magdel Louw
To get why it often hurts to have your heart broken by a failed relationship, we need to go back to the beginning… Back when we were still elated with the thrill of being in love and thought we couldn’t be happier.
Elmari Mulder Craig, a relationship expert and clinical sexologist, explains that just as heartbreak has a physical effect on the body, falling in love has too. When people fall in love, the brain continually releases a certain set of chemicals, including neurotransmitter hormones dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre and lead to side effects such as increased heart rate, loss of appetite, difficulty falling asleep and an intense feeling of excitement.
‘The need to feel loved and to belong is an important goal for most people. It’s almost as if evolution has installed a reward-and-punishment system to help us reach this goal. We are equipped with mechanisms that flood our brain with happiness when we successfully find a mate. But on the downside, we also have brain circuits that produce searing psychological pain when we lose that mate,’ Elmari says.
Like a drug
For one, being in love activates opiate receptors in the brain, which are also activated by drugs such as morphine and heroin. Research has shown that the brain reacts to heart-ache and loss the same way it reacts to being cut off from an addiction. ‘To the human brain, love is an addiction, and once this love supply is cut off, the areas of the brain that were once filled with feel-good chemicals are suddenly deprived. You literally go through withdrawal.’
But it doesn’t end there. Our brain is also flooded by stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin – which, in the absence of dopamine, is a real shock to the brain, body and heart.
In fact, studies have indicated that people who have recently lost their spouse have a 20–35% higher risk of dying of a heart attack. ‘Early bereavement (the period of mourning after a death) is linked to increased blood pressure and heart rate, which can raise cardiovascular risk.
‘Therefore, in some instances, it may very well be true that people could die of a broken heart,’ Elmari says.
Stop the hurt
New research has discovered that, in times of heartbreak, the brain actually triggers sensations in the body that you feel in times of ‘real’ physical pain.
A 2009 study by the Universities of Arizona and Maryland showed how emotional trauma can actually trigger a biological reaction in the region of the brain responsible for regulating emotional reactions. When someone is going through a stressful experience, this specific part of the brain reacts by increasing the activity of the nerve that starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest and abdomen. When this nerve is overstimulated, it can cause pain and nausea.
‘When we experience heartache, for example, we are experiencing both emotional stress and the stress-induced sensations in our chest – shortness of breath, muscle tightness, increased heart rate and abnormal stomach activity. In fact, emotional pain involves the same brain regions as physical pain, indicating that the two are connected.’
7 ways to move on … and forward
1. Breathe Deep-belly breathing helps with emotional healing and controlling anxiety.
2. Give yourself permission to mourn Develop and repeat a helpful mantra to get you through the initial shock and pain, such as: ‘Everything is as it’s supposed to be’, ‘This too shall pass’ or ‘I will survive’.
3. Reach out to a family member or close friend Talk about it – it helps to share your thoughts with others. Physical contact will also trigger the release of dopamine and oxytocin, which are depleted from your system after a break-up.
4. Assess the experience Have you learnt anything about yourself from the break-up? Does the experience make you a little more empathetic to others who have suffered the same hardship?
5. Start a hobby Find something that will fill your time, distract your mind and rebuild your confidence.
6. Exercise This increases opiates in the brain. Go to the gym, take up yoga or start dancing lessons.
7. See a psychiatrist or psychologist If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, such as lack of appetite, insomnia or sleeping too much, low self-esteem and an inability to carry out routine tasks or concentrate, it’s important to get professional help.
Elmari Mulder Craig