Researchers at the University of Michigan, Columbia, and the University of Colorado have found that the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are also activated by intense social rejection. Romantic heartbreak does actually cause physical pain. Magnetic Resonance Scanners (MRIs) demonstrated that the emotional distress of a bad breakup elicited the same brain response as having been scalded on the arm with hot coffee. (Koss) Some adults never recover from the devastation of being left in a relationship. They may never take the risk of being intimate again, Can you imagine the trauma that an infant experiences when abandoned by a birth mother, what Elizabeth Verrier calls a “primal wound”. This pre-verbal wound can leave scars for a lifetime leading to an attachment disorder.
The correlation between sensory pain and emotional pain is rooted in the nervous system (Bakalar). Both are controlled by the same neurotransmitters – chemicals such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and Substance P (Hellmich). Additionally, both are processed in the same regions of the brain. Other studies have shown that both social rejection and physical pain activate an additional set of brain regions linked to negative emotions. The mind, brain, and body are tightly linked. The connection between pain and heartbreak makes perfect evolutionary sense. We are motivated to maintain and repair our intimate relationships in an attempt to avoid the significant emotional distress associated with breakups. (Leary) Humans are social pack animals just like dolphins and wolves. We need each other to survive and have a deep need to be part of a group. In our hunter-gatherer past, being ostracized from our tribe was a death sentence. The consequences were so severe that the threat of social isolation was a powerful deterrent to unsociable behavior. Our brains learned to prioritize experiences of rejection and magnify their sensory significance.
Heartbreak and social loss are believed to lead to a wide variety of physical disorders. When our brain circuitry is functioning efficiently pain and anguish can be dealt with more effectively. The symptoms are self-limiting and reduce over time. If the problem is chronic and the circuitry is malfunctioning the brain’s distress apparatus stays switched on. Negative emotions can become magnified and stress, depression and chronic pain can prevail. Interestingly treating chronic pain can alleviate depression and treating depression can alleviate chronic pain. Researchers at UCLA found that taking Tylenol, a physical pain reliever diminished the pain of hurt feelings and social exclusion. (Eisenberger) Medication that relieves underlying psychological symptoms can also control pain. Besides drugs, mind-body techniques, psychotherapy, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation and many other techniques can help modulate emotional responses to pain.