After a major break up or a death of a loved one, you may feel so upset that it hurts. You experience gut-wrenching heartache and pain as you try to work through your feelings. There are many descriptions in literature and popular culture about the pain in your heart or chest when you are sad. This is not just a coincidence. When you are emotionally sad or upset, it can actually cause you physical pain. It is not just in your mind. Your feelings are actually causing physical changes in your body.
Terms like heartache are not just a metaphor. People actually feel physical pain when they feel emotional pain. Your body is designed to handle stress in certain ways. When you are engaged in a stressful situation, it causes physical changes. Your heart rate increases, your stomach churns, you become short of breath and your muscles tighten.
When scientists look at MRIs of people in emotional or physical pain, they see something interesting. Emotional pain causes the same brain regions to light up as physical pain does. This seems to show that your body connects emotional and physical pain. When you are upset or sad, you actually feel physical pain because of the strength of your feelings.
Why Does This Happen?
In New Age literature, you always read about the mind-body connection. This is not just some made-up, New Age topic. There really is a distinct connection between your mind and body. In 2009, the University of Maryland and the University of Arizona conducted a study on this topic. They decided to look at changes to brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain is designed to handle emotional reactions. During a stressful experience, your anterior cingulate cortex reacts by increasing the vagus nerve’s activity. This nerve is connected to your chest, brain stem, abdomen and neck. If your vagus nerve is stimulated excessively, it can cause you to experience nausea and pain.
In another 2006 study, emotional pain was found to influence your perception of pain. In the study published in Science, a mouse watched a fellow mouse that was in agony. Even though the first mouse was not harmed, it had a changed sensitivity to pain because of its empathy for the harmed mouse. Another MRI study on humans found that social kindness could change how the brain responds to pain. For example, holding hands could reduce how sensitive you are to pain. Different regions of the brain like the superior frontal gyrus, the anterior insula and the hypothalamus were found to play roles in regulating negative emotions and blunting the feeling of pain.
The experience of heartache seems to be caused by the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain regulates emotional reactions, and it becomes active during stressful situations. Your heartache is not just in your mind. You are actually experiencing increased pain because of the emotional stress that you are under.
Your Mind and Body
This type of mind-body reaction is not just related to your recent heartache. Different emotions can cause different physical reactions. When you are afraid, it feels like your stomach drops. Anxiety, anger and fear were also found to cause strong reactions in your chest area. Meanwhile, seeing a crush can give you goosebumps. When study volunteers felt love and happiness, sensations started to spark all over their bodies.
What Happens When You Experience a Break Up?
For most people, a break up is one of the most emotionally devastating things that can happen. Other than losing a loved one, there are few events that are as emotionally difficult and challenging to go through. Unfortunately, your break up is taking its toll on your body. There are a few different physical changes that happen following a break up, and these changes are not in your head. A break up is actually genuinely bad for your health.
1. Your Stress Hormones Go Nuts
As you might expect, the constant stress of a break up causes your stress hormones to spiral out of control. When you first fell in love, you experienced a boost in oxytocin and dopamine. These neurochemicals induced feelings of pleasure and happiness. If you have ever researched addictions, you may have noticed that dopamine is one of the chemicals involved in an addiction as well. This is not just chance; you basically become addicted to love.
Unfortunately, a break up is a devastating end to your love addiction. All of those positive neurochemicals stop flooding your body, and your brain fills with epinephrine and cortisol. Known as the stress hormones, these neurochemicals cause blood to flow to your muscles and your heart to beat faster. Your body basically goes into flight or fight mode as it experiences this stress. This can lead to a stiff neck, swollen muscles, headaches and a tight sensation in your chest.
2. You May Gain or Lose Weight
For many people, a break up results in a changed attitude toward food. Some people begin binge-eating as a way to distract themselves, comfort their broken heart and heal. Other people are so consumed by stress and anxiety that they cannot even contemplate eating. Either option can lead to a rapid change in your weight as you try to get over your loss.
3. You Will Question Yourself
When you fall in love with someone, your personal identity starts to change. Before long, you are thinking of yourself as an “us” instead of just an “I.” Once the break up occurs, you lose this “us” identity. Instead of being someone’s partner, you are just yourself again. This can cause you to have an existential crisis as you try to figure out who you are again. You may also question your personal qualities as you try to figure out if it is something that you did or said that caused the break up.
3. You Will Feel Depressed
Now that the happiness hormones are gone you are probably going to experience depression. When you experience trauma or loss, you may experience a drop in your self-esteem. Your heartache and lower self-esteem can fuel a sense of depression. Researchers have also found that a loss that caused reduced self-esteem was twice as likely to cause depression.
4. You May Go Through Withdrawal
As we mentioned before, you have basically developed an addiction to the positive hormones that happen when you fall in love. When you are suddenly out of love, your mind and body go through withdrawal. In MRI studies, the brain areas that activate when seeing a picture of an ex are the same ones that light up when someone goes through cocaine withdrawal. Luckily, the withdrawal symptoms have something else in common with cocaine withdrawal. If you give it long enough, the withdrawal symptoms and stress will gradually go away.
While you may want to isolate yourself and binge-watch Netflix, that is one of the worst things that you can do. Whether you lost a loved one or experienced a break up, the best thing that you can do is to be around people. You need to boost your dopamine levels again, so start doing activities that you enjoy. Exercise, being around friends and doing activities that you love can help increase your dopamine levels.