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Broken Hearts: Why Emotional Trauma Causes Physical Pain

By HERWriter Guide
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broken heart Photo: Getty Images

We’ve all felt the agony of a bad relationship. Someone doesn’t love us as much as we love them. They cheat or break up with us for no apparent reason. And we are left feeling heartbroken, scared and feeling like life will never be the same again. But something else happen, too. It’s a physical thing, a gnawing (and very real) feeling of being physically unwell. Constipation, insomnia, chest pain, headaches, body aches and stomach upset aren’t uncommon. We are also more prone to skin outbreaks, including hives. Our bodies weaken, along with our hearts and minds. In fact, Broken Heart Syndrome is a real condition caused by the death of a long term partner. This also happens with animals.

A study from the University of Michigan took a look at forty people who recently endured breakups. They were touched with a hot probe while their brains were scanned. While the probes were not enough to cause an injury or even serious pain, they were hot enough to cause discomfort that was then registered via the brain scan.

While still hooked up to the same brain scans, they were then showed photos of the person who recently broke up with them and asked to study the pictures and think about their ex. The same areas of the brain that reacted to physical pain via the hot probes lit up again as the subjects' emotions surged while recounting their lost relationships.

Ethan Kross, an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan and lead author in this study, says there is a very legitimate reason for this kind of physical reaction to emotional pain and it goes back thousands of years. People had to remain in groups for safety against wild animals and the other pitfalls of living in jungles, deserts, woodlands or savannas. The human body reacted strongly – both emotionally and physically – to getting lost or being deserted by the group they were living with in order to push the person into finding the group again. Strength in numbers was crucial to survival.

Heartache can literally ache, in every sense of the word.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.