real life

A psychologist explains why you can feel actual physical pain after a break up.

Right now, we’re in the thick of break up season.

Data from Facebook tells us relationship statuses are more likely to change for the worse in the months around Christmas, between November and March, and the first Monday in January is widely known as ‘Divorce Day,’ given the surge in married couples seeking a split.

Now, a New York psychologist has explained why people who experience a break up can actually experience physical pain.

Writing for Psychology Today, licensed psychologist and author Guy Winch said heartbreak activates certain mechanisms in the brain that are also activated during physical pain. This is why a break up can feel like a punch in the stomach or have you doubled over in, what quite literally is, agony.

MRI scans during a 2011 study, as reported by the Mirror, showed how pain centres in the brain lit up when 40 recently separated volunteers were asked to look at photographs of their former lovers. The problem, Winch says, is that physical pain can be solved or turned off. Emotional pain cannot.

“While physical pain rarely remains at such intense levels for extended durations of time, the pain of heartbreak can go on for hours, days, weeks, and even months,” he writes. “This is why the suffering heartbreak causes can be so extreme.”

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Then there is the way, just as many artists have attested, that love acts like a drug.

Further MRI studies have shown that a break up can trigger the same mechanisms in the brain that occur when addicts are ‘coming down’ off illicit drugs. An addict’s obsession with cocaine and opioids have some commonalities with the intense feelings of love, and heartbroken people struggle with thinking logically, focusing properly and functioning day-to-day.

“We would never expect an addict in the midst of withdrawal to be able to function in their job or personal life because we understand they are in a temporarily abnormal mental state,” Winch writes. “We need to think of heartbreak in the same terms and modify our expectations of ourselves and others accordingly.”

Finally, there are the intrusive thoughts our brain generates without us wanting it to. It happens frequently, without warning. And thoughts of our ex, their smile, a moment with them, the way they made coffee, all of a sudden flood our brain. “Each time an intrusive thought appears it interrupts us, reopens our wound, reactivates our emotional pain and triggers our withdrawal symptoms,” Winch says.

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Love acts, quite literally, like a drug.

All of this is sounding extremely dire, but it can be helpful.

By understanding that the way your body is responding to your break up is normal, you are able to move forward more easily.

You can recognise the pain in your chest, and understand where it's coming from.

You can notice that you're distracted, reflect on why, and stop beating yourself up for it. You are suffering the way an addict might and there are no 'rehabilitation' centres for lost love.

Finally, when you realise your brain is sending you intrusive thoughts, you can begin to recognise them as someone in a meditative state might. To see them, observe them without judgment, and then send them away.

Eventually, you might begin to understand the triggers for these intrusive thoughts and start protecting yourself against them. Soon enough, the thoughts will become more infrequent until they're hardly there at all.

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