The Neuroscience Behind Emotions of a Broken Heart

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Sarvika Aggarwal

08 January 2024

5 Mins

With the advent of the “dating-apps era”, more people are making out, hooking up, and casually dating more than ever, but divorce rates are rising rapidly and we are getting married later. Overall, we are a generation of commitment-phobes. In such a setup, when you actually do find yourself in a long-term romantic relationship and then lose that love over the trials and tribulations of our generation- cheating, lying, ‘falling out of love’- it feels like a million stab wounds to the heart.

Interestingly, scientific research reveals that the brain perceives this emotional pain as physical, specifically targeting the area associated with physical pain. Social rejection activates stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which flood the body. The excess cortisol prompts increased blood flow to the muscles, causing them to tense up and prepare for action. However, since you're not physically reacting but rather experiencing emotional distress, this tension may manifest as headaches, a stiff neck, and an intense sensation of tightness in the chest.

What Happens When our Heart Breaks?

Intense heartbreak, whether caused by the death of a loved one or a similar emotional event, can have severe consequences, including broken-heart syndrome or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which can actually kill you. According to the American Heart Association this syndrome releases stress hormones into the heart muscle, disrupting its normal function and potentially leading to shortness of breath, congestive heart failure, low blood pressure, shock, or heart rhythm abnormalities.

From a neuro-chemical perspective, a breakup triggers similar effects to withdrawal from a highly addictive drug. The brain areas activated after seeing an image of an ex are comparable to cocaine addicts experiencing physical pain during drug withdrawal. Romantic love is associated with an increase in feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin, which contribute to happiness and trust. Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to these elevated levels, making it challenging to return to pre-relationship emotional states.

Despite understanding the science behind these processes, experiencing a breakup can still bring overwhelming sadness and confusion. Personal experiences often transcend knowledge, and the healing process may require a combination of logical reasoning and emotional resilience.

How Can You Heal a Broken Heart?

1. Self-care is health care

Like with addiction, a sudden loss of the drug causes severe withdrawal and could possibly cause a relapse. I tried to give weaning off of the addition over time a try. I tried to replace the lost feel-good chemicals with new things that made me happy by developing a self-care routine. At first, it was just in theory- because I was just so sad, I was just doing these things because some website or book told me they would help. Ultimately though, my self-care routine made me smarter, more confident of myself, which left me actually loving myself.

2. How meditation rewires your brain

This is not the most obvious option for many, but meditation practically forced me to focus on me for a few minutes every day, and ultimately helped make me the centre of my universe again. It helped me shift awareness from the external world onto my own body and therefore made me shed emotional baggage.

3. Working out makes you happier

Working out releases endorphins that invite natural feelings of pleasure, happiness, and euphoria. It also helps relieve some of the stress that has been released into the system and helps balance dopamine levels. Increased control over the body and the evident muscle toning/weight loss can help boost self-confidence.

4. How gaining knowledge helps

For me personally, this part worked wonders. I listened to podcasts, read interesting books of various genres and networked with a lot of seasoned professionals in my field (or not). This gave me a lot of opportunities to explore different possibilities of what my day-to-day could look like and educated me in philosophy, anthropology, astronomy and so on.

5. Why making new friends is important

Because I was learning fascinating and new information every day, I had a lot of interesting things to talk about on the daily. This helped me with my social skills (that usually suffer after a breakup due to self-esteem issues) by talking to a lot of different kinds of people and internalise their perspective. Sometimes, it may be possible that you don’t want to interact with your friends because they simply might not be able to relate to what you’re going through. In that case, online communities can provide a community of likeminded people for you, where you can find others who went or are currently going through a situation same as yours. In times like these, constant support from a community can be very refreshing and helpful.

6. Expressing your emotions

I actually took an hour and a half every day to cry about it and feel bad for myself. While this may sound counterproductive, I think allotting time to do this helped me compartmentalise my brain to show emotion during a specific time every day and keep negative emotions from putting a damper on other activities.

Overall, a positive outlook/perspective, a reminder that you will get through this and a great support system will yield successful results. Another new-age solution I will offer, according to researchers in the journal Psychological Science, is “acetaminophen, an over-the-counter medication commonly used to reduce physical pain, also reduces the pain of social rejection, at both neural and behavioural levels,” since we know they have the same pathway in the brain.

Even though I am not a proponent of popping pills to cure heartbreak, it is intriguing to think that Neuroscience can understand love on a chemical level so much so that maybe in the near future, we will be able to quit love like we quit cigarettes- by wearing a patch or chewing some gum.

You'll be alright

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