Love Hurts: The Science of a Broken Heart
While love is in the air as Valentine’s Day nears, some may literally be sick of romance. Specifically those who are feeling lonely or have just gone through a break up.
Although it may take time to feel “single and ready to mingle,” learning how your body is effected by this phase of life may help you to stay on a healthy track.
Crashing From Cloud Nine
The pain and heart-sinking feeling associated with a break up is hard to ignore. But scientists say that much of the heartsick feeling is actually created by the brain.
A study done in 2005 revealed that when participants claimed to feel deeply in love, his or her MRI reflected this mood as a high in the brain. Scans showed the firing of neurons and an activation of the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain responsible for motivation and other positive thinking. The brains of those in love were also experiencing dramatically high levels of dopamine, a natural hormone that can cause happiness or euphoric feelings.
But in 2010, scientists revisited romance by oppositely scanning the brains of those who identified as being in the first stages of a break up. In these stages, participants who believed they were still in love still had an active caudate nucleus and similar neuron firings. However, the orbital frontal cortex, responsible for controlling behavior and identifying emotions, began overriding other love-effected portions of the brain, scientists wrote.
Scientists concluded that love is like an addiction. When participants were in love, the parts of the brain that lit up were similar to those that are known to activate when addictive substances are used. Similarly, areas of the brain that help a person kick a habit activated as the participants were no longer able to be with their ex-partners.
Additionally, when participants of the study were asked to speak about their past love, researchers said that the hormones triggered in the brain were also known to be triggered when people experience physical pain.
Broken Heart Syndrome
Although some may feel a slight chest ache or heart-sinking feeling after getting dumped, studies have not yet concluded why these feelings happen.
However, according to the American Heart Association, a break up, divorce, loss or other extreme stress can cause a complication which goes by three names: stress-induced cardiomyopathy, takotsubo cardiomyopathy—and the most well-known—broken heart syndrome. This complication, which is more common in women, can strike suddenly, even if someone is otherwise healthy. It also could occur after something shockingly good happens, such as winning the lottery.
Part of the heart temporarily enlarges and functions abnormally while blood continues to pump regularly through the unaffected areas of the organ. If untreated, it can lead to further complications such as short-term heart muscle failure.
Due to a surge in stress hormones, the condition is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack, because it may cause a sudden jolt of chest pain.
Luckily, many who experience broken heart syndrome make a full recovery with no further complications.
The Least Wonderful Time of the Year?
One thing that may make loneliness feel worse, especially as February 14 rolls around, is the weather. As the days are still shorter, colder and darker, some may feel affects of seasonal affective issues due to the lack of sunlight. Although seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a diagnosed condition, those who do not have it may still feel lower or moody in the winter season.
One way to boost your mood during the dark days of winter, especially when going through a breakup, may involve stocking up on mood-boosting herbs and supplements.
“Is Broken Heart Syndrome Real?” American Heart Association, heart.org, 20/20/15. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/Cardiomyopathy/Is-Broken-Heart-Syndrome-Real_UCM_448547_Article.jsp#.VrewNzYrL_Q
“Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love,” by Fisher HE1, Brown LL, Aron A, Strong G, Mashek D., Journal of Neurophysiology, 6/5/10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20445032
“This Is Your Brain on Heartbreak,” by Meghan Laslocky, The Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Berkley University, 2/15/13.