Anyone who has painstakingly belted out the words to '70s rock band Nazareth's big hit ("Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and marks….Ooo-oo love hurts"), knows it’s true. A broken heart can hurt like a mother.
“When we break-up, or are rejected, the separation from the beloved is almost like hacking off a part of ourselves — the pain of heartbreak uses some of the same circuits in our brain associated with physical pain and tries to get us to not break up with a loved one,” says Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist and practicing physician at the University of California San Francisco and author of The Female Brain and The Male Brain . In plain English: Your brain doesn't want you to lose the body part (a.k.a. ex) that seems to have been chopped off (a.k.a. unceremoniously cut out of your life).
And while this will give little comfort to those who fall in — and out — of love easily, heartbreak is actually worse than say, slamming your finger in a door because when your heart is "broken," you feel pain everywhere. “The pain circuits for heartbreak are not as specific as slamming your finger in the door but are more all over the body as if you had been body-slammed,” says Brizendine. Owwwwww.
And, recent research from the University of Michigan shows that there’s actual neurological overlap in the regions of the brain (specifically the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula) — areas that were thought to not be able to be stimulated from emotional distress alone — when you feel legit physical pain and rejection and heartbreak. When subjects’ brains were scanned, the same areas that lit up when they saw a picture of an ex were stimulated when they experienced a painful sensation (the equivalent of being burned with a hot cup of coffee).
The good news: just like a broken finger will heal, over time, so will that heart of yours. “Healing of a physical wound starts to happen by alerting the stress circuits and inflammatory wound healing cells in the body; scientists are starting to find that some of the same stress circuits and inflammatory cells are alerted for heartbreak, too,” says Brizendine. “But the healing process takes at least as much time — if not more — than a physical wound.”
Why must you go through that pain for so freakin' long? “A break up rips out a person's being from your expanded sense of self where you have incorporated them into your cognitive and emotional brain circuits — this 'hole in your brain' causes horrible emotional and physical pain,” explains Brizendine. “And it needs time to heal.” The ultimate broken heart Band-Aid is, not surprisingly, new love (or a rebound fling, whatever happens first). “They can accelerate healing by using the same brain circuits and brain chemicals — dopamine, oxytocin — that aid in recovery,” says Brizendine.
And don’t hole up in your apartment watching rom-coms on TBS, either. The other main heart healers are those that involve being social, as in spending time with loved ones, even if platonic. “Surround yourself with the most loving and supportive people in your life, get lots of sleep, take a vacation with friends, eat healthy foods, etc. — these activities and a new love interest can accelerate the healing process,” says Brizendine. The next thing you know, your new favorite tune will be "I Can See Clearly Now."
Photo: Via Calvin Klein