The Science Behind A Broken Heart

I once attended a lecture by a Dr. Max Pemberton author of ‘Trust Me, I’m a (Junior) Doctor’. He spoke of his childhood pet chicken dying of a broken heart and once he reached med school he realised that this was entirely true.

Heartbreak can be defined as the intense sorrow or overwhelming distress one experiences after the loss of a loved one through death, divorce, breakup, physical separation or romantic rejection. Although the term may refer to the emotional pain, there is now evidence to suggest that there are physiological changes one undergoes during heartbreak.

The notion of love has limitless definitions. It can be used in reference to inanimate objects such as a love for ornamental spoons or other forms of culinary wear. However, most humans seek supposedly meaningful and passionate love (the love behind heartbreak, cus hey, let’s face it, when did a spoon ever break anyone’s heart?)

Humans have a desire for happiness. Happiness can be obtained through that content feeling you get when you know you make someone else happy. Over time you grow to love by mutually acknowledging that you and the other person make each other happy. This wonderful positive feedback mechanism should ensue, however, we live on planet earth so it doesn’t. Cue heartbreak and a lost of the sense of purpose acquired from the previous relationship.

One becomes emotionally overwhelmed with feelings of grief and deep sorrow. However, there’s more than just feelings too it as the mind indeed affects the body.

Symptoms vary from person to person but can include:

– Depression – creation of a barrier between oneself and the world and society
– Physical pain – a deep ache and longing for the past
– Loss of appetite
– Insomnia
– Headaches
– Stomach aches
– Eating disorders
– Panic attacks
– Loss of interest
– Fatigue
– Loneliness
– Hopelessness

Physical Heartbreak

During times of depression and loss, blood flow to the brain can be altered with increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (link) which regulates physical pain.

It can also be noted that in a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine that Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy or Stress Cardiomyopathy (nicknamed ‘Broken Heart Syndrome) is triggered by emotional stress, suggesting ‘physical heartbreak’. Broken Heart Syndrome begins with the experiencing of emotional stress that stimulates the adrenal glands and the nerves to produce stress hormones (adrenaline in particular) this sharply lowers the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body and causes chest pain and other similar symptoms experienced during heart attack. Heart muscle is temporarily rendered useless by high levels of stress hormones thus mimicking the symptoms of heart attack.

So what is the recommended treatment for a broken heart?

Patience as time is indeed the best healer in emotional circumstances; however, it can mean waiting a long time. Supplementary treatment includes keeping busy with hobbies (best distraction one can find) and seeing one’s friends as much as possible to avoid self-imposed isolation.

Sources: Science20.com, NEJM, Minneapolis Heart Institute

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One thought on “The Science Behind A Broken Heart

  1. Keeping busy and seeing friends is indeed the best way to heal. Right after my recent break up I called every friend I had. Packed my schedule and ended up seeing more friends in two weeks than I probably had for months prior. It really did ease my panicky feelings a lot.

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