“This hurts worse than the time I broke my arm!” If you’ve ever heard a friend describe the pain of a break-up in terms of physical injury, it turns out they may not be speaking metaphorically. Various studies have shown there seems to be a striking similarity to how the brain reacts to both physical and emotional pain, according to reports.
“We were sitting next to each other and noticed how similar the two brain images looked,” Naomi Eisenberger of the University of California-Los Angeles’ Psychology Department told Psychologicalscience.org in a press release last year, when referring to images of brain activity of people suffering physical pain and those suffering rejection that she was studying with a colleague.
According to The Telegraph, there may be an evolutionary reason for this physical response. The site quotes Eisenberger as saying, “Because social connection is so important, feeling literally hurt by not having social connections may be an adaptive way to make sure we keep them. Over the course of evolution, the social attachment system, which ensures social connection, may have actually borrowed some of the mechanisms of the pain system to maintain social connections.”
IO9.com reported in 2009 that a mu-opioid receptor gene known as OPRM1, which shows a response when people feel physical pain, also reacts when emotional pain is experienced, and that people with a rare condition in which this receptor is more sensitive to physical pain reported suffering greater emotional distress as well.
The Associated Press even details a condition dubbed “broken heart syndrome” by the doctors at Johns Hopkins who studied it from 1999-2003. The site reports that people suffering intense grief, or in some cases powerful fear, reported symptoms similar to those experienced by someone having a heart attack, although tests confirm they did not have an actual cardiac episode, and there was no permanent damage to their hearts.
Fortunately, there is hope for those going through heartbreak. According to the Daily Mail, the greater the length of time it had been since the rejection took place, the less activity was shown in the part of the brain that controls emotional attachment.
It looks like the old adage may be true: “Time heals all wounds.”