A neuroscientist breaks down the science behind heartache

It turns out heartbreak is more than psychological.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of heartache.jpg
Representational image of heartache.


Anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak knows that it’s more than psychological. It results in real physical sensations of body aches accompanied with an inability to function like before, making even eating a burden.

Now, a new article by Sky News is explaining the science behind this phenomenon.

Addicted to others

Neuroscientist Dr Lucy Brown highlights why "we're all miserable when we've been dumped" and it has to do with dopamine and the connection it creates between two people.

"It's like we're addicted to each other," she told Sky News.

Brown and her colleagues undertook a study where they analyzed the brain activity of 15 young adults going through difficult breakups. When exposed to photos of their ex-partners, the parts of the brain associated with dopaminergic neurons were overly activated.

Brown compared this activity to one most notably identified in drug addicts who are trying to stop using.

"When we lose someone, we've lost a very rewarding part of our lives and sense of self. They've provided novelty in your life that now isn't there, so we need some other rewards,” she explained to Sky News.

Not all of it is hormonal however. Some of the pain is actually physical.

A 2011 study in the journal Biological Sciences reported that the physical pain exhibited during heartache is indeed very real. “We demonstrate that rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well,” noted the authors in their abstract.

And other experts seem to agree.

"The neurobiological effects of heartbreak can reach such heights that it has been likened to that of physical pain as evidenced both by self-reported physical symptoms, such as chest pain and panic attacks, and sufferers' description of their feelings, such as feeling knocked-out or crushed," told Live Science Eric Ryden, a doctor of clinical psychology and therapist at Couples Therapy clinic in England, in February of 2023. 

"Heartbreak seems to involve some of the same neural mechanisms as that of physical pain.”

This pain can be so intense that it may cause the sufferer real physical damage.

Putting sufferers at excess risk of mortality

A study published in 2018 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology reported that losing a partner to death was so distressing it put people at excess risk of mortality.

“Excess mortality among those who are widowed is highest in the first six months after the death of a spouse and decreases over time. Heart disease accounts for the largest proportion of these deaths. The psychological stress associated with stressful life events can enhance inflammation and lower heart rate variability (HRV). Both lower HRV and higher inflammation are risk factors for cardiovascular morbidity and mortality,” noted the authors in their abstract.

These studies indicate that psychological pain takes a real toll on the body physically and may be quite dangerous. Therefore, an important social network is required to survive heartache.

So, the next time you see someone suffering from psychological pain, do not dismiss it. Make sure to embrace them and offer all the support you can. It could very well be the difference between life and death.

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