Broken Hearts: More Than Just a Metaphor

by Katie Muir, School of Public Health

The following post was originally written for Mind the Science Gap (MTSG), a blog written by UM School of Public Health students who are taking a “Communicating Science through Social Media” course. Don’t forget to check them out when you are done reading this post!

If you have read MTSG this week then you certainly won’t forget that Valentine’s Day is tomorrow! But for some, the trappings of the holiday are no more than a reminder of a broken heart. It’s safe to say that nearly everyone has felt a broken heart in their life be it from lost love, a run away pet or perhaps the discontinuation of your favorite Starbucks drink. At the very least, we all know that when your feelings are hurt it can be just as bad as a real injury.

It’s easy to assume that heartache is actually all in our head. But is it? For many the pain is actually real and science agrees!

Stayin’ Alive
In humans, the mind-body connection is strong. We have seen on MTSG before that romance, like many social drives, is based on our evolutionary need to mate. Over time, humans have developed a requirement for social interaction; so much so that its absence can cause us physical and psychological harm. Researchers theorize that, for our ancestors, the loss of a social group could mean the difference between life or death in the harsh pre-modern environment.

In this way, emotional pain may serve exactly the same purpose as physical pain, that is to say, both emotional and physical pain signal to the human brain to avoid the cause of the pain (social isolation) to further prevent harm. The desire to alleviate pain from social rejection likely developed as our evolutionary ancestors who experienced distress from isolation pursued more social interaction as a means to make the pain go away. In doing so, these individuals would have been more likely to pass on their family genes and with that the ability of the emotional response to cause physical pain. So rest assured, newly heartbroken, what may seem terrible at the time is at least good for the survival of our species!

Pain in the Brain

Psychologists at the University of Michigan are working with sophisticated FMRI technology to prove that the pain from intense changes in social situation is, in fact, perceived as real physical pain. FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) measures brain activity by using a brain scan to detect changes in blood flow. They discovered that the areas of the brain activated by social rejection or emotional pain are the very same areas activated when we experience real, physical pain. This means that, as far as our brain is concerned, the pain signal is very real even if the stimulus is emotional.

Stress Overload
What about the other symptoms of a broken heart? That dull ache and tight chest are caused by an overload in cortisol and adrenaline: your body’s natural stress-response hormones. On a regular day, these chemicals help you respond to stressful situations quickly by initiating the ‘fight or flight’ response. However, these chemicals are also released in response to emotional stress. Now, not many painful social situations require you to get ready for a wrestling match so where do all those stress hormones go? They send more blood to your muscles, which tense up and feel constricted and tight. And that loss of appetite and inability to sleep? That’s from stress hormones too. Dealing with the ache from too much stress can be difficult but relaxation practices, such as meditation, can help.

Broken Heart Syndrome can literally break your heart
In very rare cases, the extreme stress of emotional trouble can actually cause the deadly symptoms of a heart attack. Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a sudden weakening of the heart muscles triggered by extreme emotional distress such as the loss of a loved one or constant anxiety. Such intense emotional trauma causes the release of massive amounts of stress hormones that can temporarily stun the heart muscles. But don’t worry! Unlike heartache, this is very rare and although the symptoms are scary, and occur almost entirely just in women, most patients survive the acute ‘broken-heart attack’ and return to normal functioning.

All in all, a broken heart can cause real aches and pains and it is definitely not just in your head! Now if only this was a diagnosis acceptable for taking the day off to self-medicate with Valentine’s Day chocolate…


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