Why does heartbreak hurt? The science behind what happens to your brain and body

Breakups aren’t much fun.

Whether you’re going through it for the first time or have an unfortunate familiarity, there are few more excruciating stomach ache.

doubts and uncertainties galore; I wonder where, how and why things have changed. and like agony World Cup race of the lionessesan overwhelming feeling of “what if”.

As a ‘Science and Technology Journalist’, I’ve gained a new perspective on the effects that can affect us physically.

Where are these headaches coming from? What about a sudden lack of energy? And why does it feel like eating anything, even a regular favorite food? i am a celebrity Challenge?

Because when images of wistful poetry appear Instagram Just don’t do it, turns out science has some answers.

The Holy Trinity

As neuroscientist Dr. As Lucy Brown put it, “We’re all unhappy when we’re dropped” — and there’s a potent chemical cocktail that explains why.

Serotonin is the brain chemical associated with happiness, oxytocin with bonding, and dopamine is released when your mind’s reward system is activated.

No wonder, then, that one feels good when the Holy Trinity is high and rough when it is low.

The main chemical is dopamine: the ultimate natural drug.

“It’s like we’re addicted”

Brown was part of a research team that conducted a study of the effects of heartbreak by scanning the brain activity of 15 young adults who were going through unwanted breakups.

They were shown photos of their exes, and the scans revealed that parts of the brain that power our sense of motivation and reward — where our dopaminergic neurons live — went into overdrive.

It’s an “overactivity” that Brown likens to what you see in a cocaine addict trying to break the habit.

“It’s like we’re addicted to each other,” she says.

“When we lose someone, we lose a very worthwhile part of our lives and our sense of self. You brought novelty to your life that isn’t there now, so we need other rewards.”

And just like rewatching goals that we might have thought put the Lionesses’ name on the title, looking back at text messages and vacation photos isn’t enough either.

Image: AP
Maybe next time… Image: AP

A body in danger

Florence Williams was mesmerized by the pain her heartbreak caused.

After witnessing her 25-year marriage suddenly fall apart, trauma was to be expected. But the feeling of being physically ill and completely overwhelmed surprised her.

“The event itself, of course, stunned me, but then I was really confused and surprised at how physically different I felt when I experienced it,” she says.

“The feeling of being plugged into a faulty outlet; that buzzing feeling of background anxiety and hypervigilance and an inability to sleep well; the weight loss and the general confusion.”

“My body felt threatened.”

Williams’ experience and sense of confusion sent her on a global quest for answers, documented in her book, Heartbreak: A Personal And Scientific Journey.

She found that while everyone’s personal heartbreak is different, the physical response is largely the same: It’s time the holy trinity of hormones took a hit.

Read more:
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Florence Williams.  Image: Casie Zalud
Florence Williams. Image: Casie Zalud

“Very real” physical symptoms

And it’s not just emotional pain you may be dealing with. Brain areas associated with physical pain were also activated in Brown’s study.

She explains that rejection triggers a part of the brain called the insular cortex — the same part that responds to stress-related pain, such as panicking after an already painful bee sting.

When emotional stress causes physical symptoms like headaches and nausea, it’s called somatization.

“If you’ve ever had butterflies when you were nervous, you’ve experienced this before,” explains Dr. Abishek Rolands.

“The most important thing to remember is that even if there is no physical cause, the symptoms are very real — they are not made up or ‘all in my head.'”

During her research, Williams, who has two adult children with her ex-husband, was particularly intrigued by the effects a loss can have on our immune systems.

“It’s important for our nervous system that we feel safe,” she says.

“When we have people in our lives that trigger cascades of healthy hormones, it really protects against disease. Our cells actually listen to our state of mind.”

Indeed, previous studies have emphasized the importance of meaningful social relationships in maintaining good health.

And in 2021, US researchers suggested that when we have problems, our immune system looks to our nervous system to make decisions that could make us sick.

Depressed man suffering from insomnia lying in bed

Broken Heart Syndrome

In rare cases, this type of emotional distress — especially when it comes on suddenly — can even lead to the aptly named “broken heart syndrome” or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Sindy Jodar, a senior heart nurse at the British Heart Foundation, says the symptoms – mainly shortness of breath and chest pain – are consistent with a heart attack.

“Most people have been under a lot of stress, either physical or emotional, like the loss of a loved one,” she says.

“The only explanation we have right now is that when we’re stressed, the body releases a lot of catecholamines (adrenaline), and when there’s a lot of it in the body, it can affect the heart.”

Unlike a heart attack, the disease does not cause blockages in the coronary arteries, but completely changes the shape of the left ventricle, which pumps oxygen-rich blood around the body.

This gives the disease its original Japanese name, as the shape of the ventricle is reminiscent of a trap used by fishermen to catch octopuses: narrow at the top, larger at the bottom.

The condition only affects around 5,000 people a year in the UK and is more common in women going through the menopause, with most recovering after a few weeks.

According to a study, cognitive decline accelerates after a heart attack.  Image: iStock
The symptoms of the disease correspond to a heart attack

Give up the addiction

Just as science can explain why grief, rejection, and loss make us feel the way we do, it also offers solutions.

Brown says heartbreak should be treated like “breaking an addiction,” although she admits “the desire is stronger when we’ve lost someone.”

But there are plenty of streets to drive down without eating an ice cream while watching la la country.

Williams emphasizes the importance of activating the parasympathetic part of your nervous system by doing things that make you feel calm. The other part of our autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, causes anxiety and hypervigilance.

“The connection to nature is really calming,” she says, as well as to friends and family. “And there’s a lot of data to show that the more meaning you get from your work, the more meaning you have in it, the happier you will be.”

Williams says such lessons apply to anyone who is “going through an emotional life tremor.”

“People who end a relationship also face great emotions — guilt, sadness, lonliness,” she adds.

A woman walking past daffodils in St James's Park, London.  Picture date: Thursday April 6, 2023.
Walks in nature are great for clearing your head

And as Brown says, there’s something new – that sense of excitement that needs to be refreshed in a healthy and sustainable way.

Once ice cream is a tempting dinner, but you’d probably better hope it wears off.

“A good strategy is to start doing things you didn’t do in a relationship, like running or traveling,” says Brown.

“People always remember a heartbreak – it’s very painful. But you change and you can change it for the better.”

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