Why a Broken Heart Hurts

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By Gabrielle White


If you’ve ever experienced rejection (and chances are, if you’re human, you have), you know it can be painful. Rejection happens everywhere - from a childhood memory of not being invited to a birthday party, to someone you really like letting you know they think you’re “a really great friend.” We all know how crushing the pain of rejection can be.

Though we tend to think of the pain of rejection as metaphorical rather than physical, research shows that our physiological response to emotional pain may not be so different, after all. Research published by the National Academy of Sciences shows that the pain we experience in moments like these is actually quite literal: our brains and bodies process the pain of emotional rejection in much the same way they do a sprained ankle or a broken leg.  Research participants viewed a photo of an ex after the unwanted breakup with that person, and were told to think about the rejection of that breakup. As they did, the same regions of the brain that underpin the response to physical pain became active.

It's not just the brain's reaction to emotional pain that's similar, but also the body's response. In another study at University of Michigan, research participants were told to sort through a pile of fictitious dating profiles to consider who they might date. Even though the participants knew the dating profiles were not real, when researchers told them to imagine being rejected by the imaginary people they liked, the subjects’ brain scans showed the release of opioids, or natural painkillers, as they processed the news of the fictional rejection.

Rejection hurts, but does it impact people differently? Are some people naturally better at handling rejection? Maybe so. Unsurprisingly, people who scored higher in the personality trait of  resilience  on personality tests produced more natural painkillers in coping.

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Gabrielle White

Gabby is a Contributing Editor at Mend. Her ultimate heartbreak cure is a repeat cycle of rooibos tea, puppy snuggles, and salted dark chocolate.

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