Heartbreak doesn’t just cause emotional pain, but physical pain too

By Emily Murray

Most of us find it difficult to forget the agony of our first heartbreak (a.k.a “the one that got away”). While the memories and pain tend to lessen over time, we can still recall that gut wrenching feeling of rejection years later. Those who have experienced this emotional shipwreck can attest to the fact that the pain often hurts nearly as much physically as it does  emotionally.

It’s often been said that people actually feel the pain in their heart, become faint or feel like they have been “punched in the gut.” While some of the lucky few who have never experienced rejection may write these off as the exaggerations of heartbroken romantics, new studies now uncover why a broken heart is so painful – literally.

This week, TIME Healthland featured an article on this concept,  Why the Pain of Romantic Rejection Feels Like a Punch in the Gut. The new study which spurred the initial media attention was conducted by Columbia University psychologist Edward Smith and his team. This group collectively discovered that some of the same neural pathways responsible for physical pain are also triggered during feelings of rejection and loss.

These researchers studied how emotional pain translated to physical pain by testing and studying the brain images of 40 volunteers who had been the recent recipients of an unexpected heartbreak. We all know being jilted, betrayed, left in the dust…however you want to phrase it, isn’t pleasurable to say the least, but until these results were published we never could prove that actual pain resulted, no matter how many people reported it. Through this study however, it immediately became clear that there is in fact some overlap in the neural pathways of emotional and physical pain.

The first step in the research process was to use an MRI to scan the brains of all study participants who were then instructed to do 4 separate tasks while being monitored and rating their own pain.

Task 1: Rate how much pain they experienced while looking at the picture of their ex love or ex friend.
Task 2: Rate pain from “physical stimuli.”
Task 3: Report pain from holding onto a hot cup of coffee
Task 4:  Report pain from touching a warm probe (not as hot or painful as the previous cup of coffee)

The Results:

These broken-hearted volunteers reportedly felt the most pain from the task of viewing the photos. In order to see if there was scientific evidence to back this up, researchers looked at brain activity during each task and found that when looking at the photos, volunteers experienced brain activity outside of the normal area of the brain typically stimulated by emotion. When comparing the areas of the brain which were activated by the probe and the coffee cup, these same parts of the brain which were active from this physical pain were found to be active during the photo exercise.

As quoted in the TIME article, study leader Edward Smith made the following comment –
“What we are finding is that in addition to emotional distress, there is another component, and that’s the sensory experience of pain. If you up the ante in the magnitude of the rejection experience, you now find that brain areas involved in the actual [physical] sensation of pain are involved as well.”

While this may come as no surprise to those of us who have experienced the heartbreaking deterioration of  a relationship before, perhaps the time and effort it takes to “heal” a broken heart will be better understood now that we have seen the painful effects these emotions have on the body on a whole, emotional and physical, level.