Why broken hearts really are physically painful

Jen Kirsch
Shine OnFebruary 28, 2012

Adele's hit album, 21, which she just won six Grammy Awards for earlier this month, resonates with so many of us because we can relate to the pain of a break-up, a loss, a rejection. For those of us who have suffered through these things, not only do we hurt emotionally, but we actually feel physical symptoms, such as an ache in our heart. Turns out this pain isn't in our lovesick heads.

According to research published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science emotional and physical pain cause the same reactions in the brain. The researchers found that while we would never think to say that experiences of rejection, exclusion, or social loss can cause the same pain as a headache or broken bones, this is exactly the case.

"Evidence shows social and physical pain rely on some of the same neurobiological and neural substrates," says researcher Naomi Eisenberger, assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. This means the brain structures that underlie our experiences of social and physical pain are the same.

Related: Do women suffer broken hearts more than men? Research says yes

When we go through loss, or heartache, many of us have been known to wish for a pill that could make the pain go away. Well, the authors of the study say that taking painkillers such as Tylenol or Advil could actually dull emotional pain. One study even found that people who took Tylenol for three weeks reported less hurt feelings than people who took a placebo.

"We typically think of Tylenol as a pain reliever, its for a headache, not for a broken heart, so these findings were surprising," says Eisenberger.

The authors also note that people who are more sensitive to physical pain are also more sensitive to social pain. They feel more rejected after being socially excluded.

Related: How to recover from a break-up or divorce

So what does that mean for those of us who feel so troubled following a split?

"It validates feelings of social pain," says Eisenberger, who adds,  "When we have friends going through a relationship breakup we're so quick to say hurry up, get over it. Yet social pain is just the same as physical pain.  It takes time to get over those wounds."

Other ways to cope?

"Opioids are the body's natural pain killers. When people exercise these levels of opioids go up. Positive social contact with close others also boost opioid levels," says Eisenberger.

Basically, after a break-up it may be time to hit the gym with a bestie or a sidekick.

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