Alex Rennie, 15.09.2017

Why does love hurt; a scientific perspective

Few things have the ability to render us as utterly distraught as heartbreak, that uniquely gut-wrenching emotional rollercoaster that flips the switch on stability, fast-tracking us into a state of tearful, snotty turmoil. But before you start berating yourself for asking ‘why does love hurt?’, it’s not just our heartstrings gone awry - it’s our brains too. For this in-depth feature, EliteSingles Magazine spoke to researcher Sarah van der Walt to better understand the physiological effects of a broken heart.

No-brainer; why does love hurt?

Why does love hurt so much? Those with a warped sense of humor, or a keen ear for stellar 80s pop music, have probably got a Carly Simon-shaped earworm burrowing deep into your aural passageways right about now. All kidding aside, splitting up is one of the most painful experiences we can go through. This uniquely human condition is so powerful that it does actually feel like something inside has been irrevocably torn apart. It sucks.

There is a modicum of consolation to be had - if such a thing is imaginable in said circumstances! When we’re dealing with those visceral pangs of hitting the heartbreaks, we’re actually experiencing a complex interaction of both mind and body. You’re not just crying over spilled milk; there’s actually something going on at the physical level.

To help us unravel the heady world of neurochemistry, we enlisted the help of an expert. Sarah van der Walt is an independent researcher who specializes in intergenerational trauma and psychosocial peace-building in South Africa. After completing an MA in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies she tailored her expertise towards understanding the psychosocial process of both individuals and communities to better promote well-being in her native country.

You might be wondering how her know-how can help us answer a question like ‘why does love hurt?’ Well, van der Walt happens to have an exhaustive knowledge of the neurological correlates of love, and their link to the psychology of loss and (to an extent) trauma. Where best to begin then? “To understand the neurological responses to a loss such as heartbreak, it’s important to grasp what happens to the brain when experiencing love,” says van der Walt. Let’s get to it then.

Our brains on love

Astute readers of EliteSingles Magazine may well be having a bout of déjà vu. That’s probably got something to do with an interview we landed last year with renowned neuro-expert Dr. Helen Fischer. If you missed that article, she’s famed for being the first scientist to use fMRI imaging to look at loved-up folk’s brains in action. As it happens Van der Walt’s assessment chimes with Fischer’s claim that being deeply in love functions in a similar way to addiction.

“Love triggers the parts of the brain associated with reward,” van der Walt says, “in neuroscience terms this is the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental, areas of the brain that release the neurotransmitter dopamine.” It’s hard to overstate the sheer power dopamine has over our gray matter; stimulants such as nicotine and cocaine, and opiates like heroin, spike dopamine levels in our brain, something that’s directly responsible for dependency.

“The brain associates itself with a trigger, the relationship in this case, which releases dopamine. When this trigger is unavailable, the brain responds as if in withdrawal, which heightens the brain’s demand for the relationship,” she says. Van der Walt goes on to explain that brain regions such as the “nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex and dopaminergic reward system” start firing when we contend with a break-up. “When these areas are activated, chemical changes take place in the brain. The results are intense feelings and symptoms similar to addiction, because it involves the same chemicals and areas of the brain,” she adds.

From ecstasy to agony

If you’ve ever tried to unshackle yourself from the vice-like grip of a cigarette habit, you’ll probably be able to sympathize with van der Walt’s account. That’s not to mention the vast majority of us who’ve been pushed to ponder why love hurts so much. Having established that things are well and truly in full swing at the neurochemical level, how does this play out in our lived experience?

“In the early stages of a breakup we have constant thoughts of our significant other because the reward part of the brain is heightened,” says van der Walt, “this results in irrational decision-making as we try to appease the longing created by the activation of this part of the brain, such as calling your ex and having make-up sex.” This goes a long way to describe why we begin to crave the relationship we’ve lost, and why there’s little space left in our thoughts for anything other than our ex-partner.

How about that vomit-inducing agony summoned by the mere thought of your ex (let alone the prospect of them blissfully cavorting over the horizon with some faceless lover)? Is that rooted in our brain chemistry too? “Heartbreak can manifest as a physical pain even when there is no physical cause of the pain. Parts of the brain are active that make it believe the body is in physical pain,” says van der Walt, “your chest feels tight, you feel nauseous, it even causes the heart to weaken and bulge.”

This latter point is no joke; heartbreak can cause real changes to our cardiovascular system. Surely, if there’s such a palpable impact on our health, there must be some innate explanation at play? Again, it turns out there is. “Evolutionary theory acknowledges the role emotions play in activating particular parts of the brain that are alerted when there are threats to the survival of the self,” says van der Walt. A relevant example here is our fear of rejection; being dumped by your cave-mate would’ve probably meant the difference between life and death thousands of years ago. Thankfully the repercussions aren’t so drastic for 21st-century romances!

Mending a traumatised heart

It’s clear from van der Walt’s answers that dealing with a case of heartbreak is not to be taken lightly. Erring on the side of optimism, recognizing the gravitas of why love hurts alleviates some of the pain, especially as it’s not all imagined. On that basis, van der Walt reckons it’s reasonable to consider heartbreak as a traumatic experience of sorts.

“When someone goes through a breakup, the relationship they had has been challenged and ended, so subsequently a part of your life has been lost,” she says, “this is similar to a traumatic event as the symptoms are comparable. For example, thoughts return to the break-up, you experience feelings of loss and have emotional responses to stimuli associated with the relationship, which can include flashbacks.” Of course, a breakup may not be as severe as trauma defined in its strictest sense1, but it’s still a heavy incident to deal with nonetheless.

Rounding off on a more positive note, let’s consider some of the ways of offsetting the trauma when our brains seem determined on putting us through the mill. The good news is that there are techniques to counteract those errant neurochemicals. “Self-care is one of the most important lifestyle choices when your relationship ends,” says van der Walt, “though this is unique to every person there are some universal practices such as accepting yourself, during this phase, it’s important to pay attention to your emotions.”

Introspection at this point may seem as useful as a chocolate teapot, but there’s method to it. “By experiencing these emotions you allow your brain to process the loss,” she adds. Keeping active is equally important here too. “Maintaining routine, getting enough sleep and eating nutritional food allows your brain to stay fit,” says van der Walt, “distraction is also key as you don’t want to fixate on the loss. Try new things such as going for a walk somewhere different, start a new hobby and meet new people.”

The next time you ask yourself ‘why does love hurt so much?’, or find yourself untangling the emotional debris left behind by a breakup, try remembering the importance of these three things; acceptance, activity and distraction. Van der Walt iterates this point too: “Remind yourself that there’s a whole world out there for you to discover. New sensory experiences force the brain to concentrate on the present moment and not to relapse into auto pilot where thoughts can wonder,” she says. Don’t slip into the Netflix-duvet routine, get out there and start living your life – your brain will thank you for it!

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