Ask LH: Why Can I Physically Feel Heartbreak?

Ask LH: Why Can I Physically Feel Heartbreak?

As sad as it may sound, I am no stranger to heartbreak. For some reason, reasons I will not seek out, almost every relationship I have tried to start has ended in a dumpster fire of pain.

Something that confuses me every time one of these relationships finds its way to said bin fire is that I feel an immense amount of hurt, both emotionally and physically. It always leads to me asking, ‘Why can I feel heartbreak?’

It makes sense to feel emotionally wounded after a breakup or something devastating (loss of a loved one, friendship breakdown or pets dying) but where does the physical sensation of heartbreak come from? Are our hearts actually breaking? And why does it hurt so much?

For this week’s Ask Lifehacker, we are going to investigate why we feel physical pain when we experience heartbreak and where this pain comes from.

Why do we feel heartbreak?

Turns out we actually can feel heartbreak, thanks to the way our brains register the emotional pain of the experience.

According to Queensland Health, our brains don’t clearly distinguish emotional pain from bodily pain, and that’s why we can feel physically hurt from being heartbroken.

That’s probably why people say it feels like their heart has been ripped out of their chest when they experience heartbreak.

Here’s a fun fact for you: our bodies have heartbreak hormones that will release into our system when we’ve just been dumped. How fun.

When we are in love, our levels of dopamine and oxytocin are released at elevated levels, but when a sudden heartbreak occurs, those levels drop dramatically and are replaced with cortisol (the stress hormone).

This is where the feeling of heartbreak comes in. Having too much cortisol over time, or experiencing a dramatic rise in it, can lead to heightened anxiety, nausea, acne and weight gain. As if we don’t already have enough to deal with.

Similarly, the author of many heartbreak books, Meghan Laslocky, believes the physical pain we feel can be attributed to the sympathetic and parasympathetic activation systems in our bodies.

According to Healthline, and Laslocky, the parasympathetic system is the part of our nervous system that deals with functions like digestion and saliva production as well as slowing the heart rate and our breathing.

The sympathetic system, however, gears the body up for action. It’s basically the ‘fight or flight’ response that causes our bodies to ramp up our heart rate.

During heartbreak or heightened periods of stress, these systems are triggered simultaneously which results in bodily discomfort, mostly chest pain.

What’s going on, medically?

Funnily enough, there is actually a medical term used for the pain and stress our bodies can feel during heartbreak.

According to St Vincent’s Hospital, takotsubo cardiomyopathy or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome,’ occurs when the heart muscle suddenly becomes stunned or weakened following severe emotional or physical stress.

This sudden stress can cause the left ventricle of the heart to become paralysed, causing symptoms that mimic a heart attack. Namely: strong chest pains, arm or shoulder pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and in some cases, loss of consciousness.

There isn’t too much of a need to worry though because the condition is only temporary and people can recover within two months. Of course, the emotional effects can linger for a long time, however, so be prepared for that.

In saying all that, if you do think you are experiencing a heart attack, call 000. 

While going through heartbreak can seem like a pretty lonely experience, it’s also a universally-understood feeling. So if you are struggling with it, there are always people you can talk to. Lifeline is always available to call on 13 11 14.

If you are going through a heartbreak, here are some ways to get through it.

If you’ve got a burning question that you need answering, send them to us and we will answer it! Your question could be featured on the nest Ask Lifehacker.

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