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The science behind a broken heart

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Image of broken heart made from red paper
While it will be different for every person and every circumstance, there are some scientifically sound methods of heartbreak healing you can try.

Heartbreak is an unfortunately common part of the human experience, and it really, really sucks. We’ve all been there, and it’s safe to say we all want to avoid experiencing heartbreak ever again.

We feel heart broken when we lose someone or something we loved or wanted very much, like a romantic relationship or a friendship, a family member, a pet, or a job or opportunity that was very important to us.

Heartbreak can cause a large amount of stress, especially if the loss is a sudden one. This stress can affect how we feel emotionally and physically, and may take weeks, months or even years to recover from.

While there’s still a lot to discover about how and why we experience love and heartbreak and the effect these have on our bodies, scientific study has provided us with some clues about why heartbreak makes you feel so rubbish, and some strategies to use if you’re feeling really down.  

Why does it hurt so much?

Studies show that your brain registers the emotional pain of heartbreak in the same way as physical pain, which is why you might feel like your heartbreak is causing actual physical hurt. The language we use to describe heartbreak – “I feel like my heart’s been ripped out”, “it was gut wrenching”, “like a slap in the face” – all hint at the way we associate physical pain with emotional pain.

Heartbreak hormones

Hormones aren’t just for randy teenagers – our bodies produce a long list of hormones every day for different purposes, including falling in and out of love.

Love can be addictive, like a drug, because of the hormones our brain releases when we become really attached to someone or something. Dopamine and oxytocin in particular are hormones which make us feel good and want to repeat behaviours, and are released at elevated levels when we’re in love.

Then, when heartbreak happens, these hormone levels drop and are replaced with the stress hormone cortisol. Designed to support your body’s fight-or-flight response, too much cortisol over a period of time can contribute to anxiety, nausea, acne and weight gain – all those unpleasant mental and physical symptoms associated with heartbreak.

A medically broken heart

Ever wondered if emotional heartbreak can actually, physically break your heart?

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy is the medical name for a syndrome that can be caused by heartbreak, or more accurately, the stress of a heartbreaking situation.

Acute emotional stress, positive or negative, can cause the left ventricle of the heart to be ‘stunned’ or paralysed, causing heart attack-like symptoms including strong chest, arm or shoulder pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of consciousness, nausea and vomiting.

The good news: the condition doesn’t usually cause permanent damage like a heart attack does, and often resolves itself. The bad news: it can be stressful and painful, with people often thinking they’re having an actual heart attack.

Because it’s not possible to tell without tests what’s causing your symptoms, if you ever experience the symptoms of heart attack you should call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance.

How to heal heartbreak

While it will be different for every person and every circumstance, there are some scientifically sound methods of heartbreak healing you can try.

Tips for dealing with general stress can help you in times of heartbreak, and set up healthy habits for an ongoing, healthy lifestyle. When you’re heartbroken, it can be easy to withdraw from your regular life and stop doing the things that you enjoy. But getting out and about, spending time with positive and supportive people, eating well and exercise can all help boost your mood and distract you from your upset.

Keep in mind that the old adage that “you’ll heal with time” has some truth to it. Over time, as the stress eases and you begin to calm down and recover, you should expect your bodily systems to gradually return to normal.

When to get help

There’s no shame in feeling like you’re not coping very well with a heart break – as we’ve seen, heart break can be a big shock to the system.

If you’re feeling like the stress, sadness or anger isn’t passing, if you’re having trouble getting back to normal life, or if you’re concerned in any way about how you’re feeling mentally or physically, it’s time to get some extra help. Talk with a supportive friend, family member or partner, book an appointment with your GP, or call a hotline like Lifeline or beyondblue to talk to a counsellor about how you’re feeling.

Last updated: 27 October 2017