Fixing a Broken Heart

What happens to your body when you fall in love and what happens when you lose that love? Humans are known to be a deeply social species. Our most gratified state arises when we feel belonged in our environment and with those around us. Hence, we tend to form relationships. Our motivation to maintain stable and meaningful social relationships is a common pattern that is rooted in our evolutionary history.

Love in the brain was examined by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, in 2003 in order to map the neural activity of the brain when looking at a loved one. The scan showed vibrant fireworks of green, yellow and blue in an image of grey matter, confirming that love is activated by an influx of dopamine. Dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters that are responsible for the feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, like a reward system. Love isn’t the only thing that wires an increase in dopamine. Nicotine based drugs and cocaine follow the same pattern of increased dopamine activity within the brain to provide a pleasurable feeling. The more dopamine that is released, the better you feel, the more you want it, and the easier it is to become addicted. From parallel conclusions, you can say that love is a drug.

So then what happens when the love is taken away? If you compare it to taking away a drug from a drug addict, it results in withdrawal. The extremity of the withdrawal is then determined by how addicted they were to the drug. Similar to how our body and mind hurts, heartbreak causes our body and mind to hurt. The brain regions involved in anticipating pain and regulating negative emotions are the right anterior insula, which regulates motor control and cognitive function, and the superior frontal gyrus, which links the nervous system to the endocrine system for hormone production. Thus, in response to physical pain, the brain activates the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as an alarm for distress.

When in the mire of heartbreak, chances are that you feel pain somewhere in your body. Maybe you feel it in your heart, stomach or maybe even in the palm of your hand. The pain can be temporary, or it can be chronic, depleting you and hanging over a crushing sensation. So if an fMRI of a heartbroken patient were to be taken, if he/she is feeling pain and anger, the fMRI will show color development in the three areas due to increase in the hormone progesterone. Progesterone can be linked to anger and anxiety, which causes an overall depressing effect. In the midst of a heartbreak, the panic and denial of losing a loved one, we tend to show “signs of lack of emotional control” for weeks or months after initial heartbreak. This may result in unsuitable phone calls, writing letters, pleading for reconciliation, crying sessions, uncontrollable drinking, or dramatic encounters in the wake of passion.

If it hurts so much and makes us do crazy things, how can a broken heart be fixed? Unfortunately, there is no yet physical cure for heartbreak. There is no pill to cure it. The closest may be that recent studies have shown that Acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, provides a placebo effect on patients resulting in significantly low activity in their brain’s ACC. This means that there is lower sense of distress in the patients.

Although this might not be a solid answer, other studies have shown that sensitive social support is one of the greatest source of relief for emotional distress. Hanging out with your friends or focusing on other things to keep yourself busy are beneficial for a smoother healing process. As much as we’d like to grow a new fresh heart every time we get our hearts broken, that is still not feasible. A heartbreak can distort your sense of self, and although it is a popular feeling that a lot of us can relate on, it is a topic still in research. On the bright side,  just like the neurons in a broken bone grow, change and connect with new neurons over time to heal, your heart also heal.

Work Cited:

Baer, D. (2017, March 03). The science of why heartbreak is so painful. Retrieved from https://theweek.com/articles/683488/science-why-heartbreak-painful

Jaffe, E. (2013, January 30). Why Love Literally Hurts. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-love-literally-hurts

Laslocky, M. (2013, February 15). This Is Your Brain on Heartbreak. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/this_is_your_brain_on_heartbreak

Walida Ali