“Science has finally confirmed what anyone who’s ever been in love already knows: Heartbreak really does hurt.” — CNN Health
In a new study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have found that the same brain networks that are activated when you’re burned by hot coffee also light up when you think about a lover who has spurned you.
In other words, the brain doesn’t appear to firmly distinguish between physical pain and intense emotional pain. Heartache and painful breakups are “more than just metaphors,” says Ethan Kross, Ph.D., the lead researcher and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
Heartbreak might even hurt more than being burned by coffee. While no one wants to be physically burned, most people are far more focused on having control over not experiencing the pain of heartbreak than the pain of a coffee burn.
The interesting thing to me is that most people have no problem treating themselves with kindness and caring if they are physically hurt, but they have a hard time bringing that same level of compassion to themselves if they are emotionally hurt. Still, a broken heart needs even more gentleness and tenderness than a physical burn.
What Do You Do When Your Heart Is Broken?
Most people have learned many addictive ways of avoiding feeling the pain of their broken heart. As Alexander, a client of mine, told me in a phone session, “I hadn’t smoked for years, but I’ve been smoking since my wife left me for another man six years ago. I can’t seem to stop.”
Alexander will not be able to stop smoking until he is willing to feel the burning pain of his broken heart — with deep kindness and compassion toward himself. Smoking is not the only addiction Alexander turns to. Alexander is constantly judging himself for the choices he made during his marriage. As bad as his guilt and shame feel, he prefers these feelings to feeling the loneliness, heartbreak, and helplessness over his wife that lie under his smoking and self-judgments.
When You Feel Lonely And Heartbroken, Do You:
- Overeat, eat junkfood, smoke, drink too much, or take drugs?
- Go on spending sprees?
- Guilt and shame yourself with self-judgments?
- Get angry and blame others, and persist in seeing yourself as a victim?
- Space out in front of the TV?
- Turn to Internet sex and pornography?
- Get overly busy with work and other activities?
- Turn to process addictions such as gambling or video games?
While Alexander’s addictions work for the moment to pacify his pain, what they really do is prolong his suffering, which is why he started to work with me. Alexander had never learned how to embrace his heartbreak — with the caring and kindness he needed — to allow the feelings to move through him.
Because Alexander had avoided opening up to and fully digesting his painful feelings, they were stuck in the muscles of his body, causing his back to go into spasms, which was causing a pinched nerve.
The truth is that painful feelings — even heartbreak — move through our bodies and are released far more quickly when we embrace them than when we avoid them with our various addictions. In order for our feelings to flow through us rather than get stuck in our muscles causing further pain, they need to be attended to with compassion for ourselves. This means we need to embrace them with gentleness, tenderness, caring, kindness and understanding. This is what allows our feelings to be fully felt, digested and released.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Apr 2012
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Experts, Y. (2012). Have You Been Burned By a Broken Heart?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 12, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/04/28/have-you-been-burned-by-a-broken-heart/