Why a Broken Heart Literally Hurts

A lot of sayings have some literal truth in them – and indeed this is where the inspiration for those sayings often comes from. For instance when you say that you’ve got a ‘broken heart’ this means that you have been upset by a loss or the end of a relationship – but the inspiration for this is likely to come from the fact that this is often literally what that kind of loss feels like. Of course your heart isn’t really broken – that would be a rather fatal condition – but it really can feel as though it’s been bruised or shattered.

The Brain/Body Link

This is in fact just one example of how close the mind and body connection is – and there are a lot of ways that your emotions can affect your physical health. We all know for instance how being very stressed or scared can have physical symptoms and this includes things like shaking, elevated heart rate and even vomiting. In conditions like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) there can be a connection between stress and bowel movements – and in healthy individuals this connection can exist between bowel movements and fear.

Likewise your emotion can also affect your immune system and make you more or less likely to contract disease. For instance if you have depression then this puts you at risk of developing a range of diseases. Laughter meanwhile has been shown to improve your immune system and being surrounded by loving friends and family has been demonstrated to even help you to recover from conditions such as cancer. So with all this in mind it’s no surprise that something as emotionally intensive as a break up or loss of love should make you feel physical symptoms.

The Mechanism

There are many mechanisms that potentially explain how this link works. For instance it has been shown that there is a gene in the human genome that links social rejection with physical pain. This works because the gene triggered by social rejection is also responsible for regulating ‘mu-opioids’ which are a natural pain killer produced in the body. Thus your social rejection can result in your feeling more pain – but this doesn’t explain why that pain is focused on the heart necessarily.

At the same time scientists are also discovering more and more that love is a form of chemical addiction that exists between two people. This chemical is oxytocin (though others may play a role), and like any addiction having your supply suddenly cut off is painful and that means that you can end up with withdrawal symptoms. Heart conditions and heart pain and heart conditions are often listed among common withdrawal symptoms so this spreads a little more light on the matter.

Then there’s the fact that heartbreak causes stress and is in fact one of the most stressful things we can go through – it represents a huge upheaval and a change to the way we live our life so this stress is nothing surprising. However stress too can have various impacts on our body as it causes us to experience the ‘fight or flight’ response which involves the release of adrenaline that in turn causes an increased heart rate, muscle contractions, and other problems.

And finally it can lead to depression – for obvious reasons – and this is known to increase our sensitivity to pain and other things, as well as to open up our immune system to attack. So in other words there are any number of ways that heartbreak can lead to actual pain – both in the heart and otherwise. The link between the mind and body is a two way thing that works in a lot of different ways, and so it’s not surprising that an emotion this strong would have a considerable impact on your physically. But don’t worry – it doesn’t last forever and people tend to bounce back stronger than ever.

4 comments

  1. Anonymous Reply
    May 12, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Stupid feelings 🙁

  2. Maria Kristine Reply
    July 9, 2015 at 5:53 am

    Gracias! For writing this. This helped a lot in alleviating the pain that I just felt. Now I am just wondering because my cousins who are boys said they too feel the same way. I don't understand. Is it going to affect me just randomly like this?

  3. Maria Kristine Reply
    July 9, 2015 at 5:55 am

    My cousin gave me a brilliant idea. The enemy targets the breasts and the prostate. I told him he was a genius.

  4. Ellie Reply
    July 6, 2018 at 2:19 am

    I always knew this kinda but really needed to read this right now. Feels like my heart is literally in two, my chest is super tight and heart beat is rapid and I honestly thought I was having a heart attack! Good thing it’s only a heartbreak. 🙁

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