Broken heart

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For other uses, see Broken Heart (disambiguation).
A heart symbol broken down the middle, a symbol of a broken heart[1]

A broken heart (or heartbreak) is a common metaphor for the intense emotional pain or suffering one feels after losing a loved one, whether through death, divorce, breakup, separation, betrayal, or romantic rejection.

Heartbreak is usually associated with losing a family member or spouse, though losing a parent, sibling, child, pet, lover or close friend can all "break one's heart," and it is frequently experienced during grief and bereavement. The phrase refers to the physical pain one may feel in the chest as a result of the loss, although it also by extension includes the emotional trauma of loss even where it is not experienced as somatic pain. Although "heartbreak" ordinarily does not imply any physical defect in the heart, there is a condition known as "Takotsubo cardiomyopathy" (broken heart syndrome), where a traumatising incident triggers the brain to distribute chemicals that weaken heart tissue.

Psychological and neurological understanding[edit]

Research has shown that a broken heart hurts in the same way as pangs of intense physical pain. A 2011 study demonstrated that the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection, or social loss generally. "These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection 'hurts'," said University of Michigan social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article.[2][3] The Michigan research implicates the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula. Macdonald and Leary had earlier (2005) proposed the evolution of common mechanisms for both physical and emotional pain responses, and noted that multiple languages and cultures use terms like "hurt," "heartbreak," "hurt heart" or "ripped out my heart" to describe responses to social exclusion and argue that such expressions are "more than just a metaphor."[4]

The neurological process involved in the perception of heartache is not known, but is thought to involve the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, which during stress may overstimulate the vagus nerve causing pain, nausea or muscle tightness in the chest.[5] Eisenberger and Lieberman showed that rejection is associated with activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and right-ventral pre-frontal cortex, areas established as be involved in processing of pain (including pain experienced in others through empathy).[6] The same researchers mention effect of social stressors on the heart, and personality on perception of pain.[7]

Researchers have found that the amount of stress is related inversely to the amount of breakup distress. This is because greater distress is felt in a shorter amount of time since the breakup. This is closely related to the perception of pain by how an individual can choose to feel greater distress after a breakup or look at the break up in a positive way, which decreases their distress, but does not usually happen. Studies show that the most helpful way to get over a broken heart is time and a new partner. Most people look for a desirable new partner to help regulate their daily activities and mood. This is also related to the perception of pain. The individual is unable to handle their pain so they want someone else to make them feel better.[8][5]


Factors like romantic breakups and losses following death can lead to bereavement symptoms, which correlates to the feeling of being "heartbroken". Some symptoms that come with bereavement include insomnia and intrinsic thoughts, broken heart syndrome, and immune system dysfunctions.

Insomnia and intrinsic thoughts[edit]

Sleep disturbance is among the most frequent symptom reported that is related to bereavement. About 43% of bereaved people have reported that they are unable to sleep as easily as they used to. A study within college students shows that bereaved students vs. non bereaved students have greater levels of insomnia that are related to thinking and dreaming about the loss. High levels of cortisol have also been contributed to a longer REM sleep and shorter delta wave activity that relates to stage three and four deep sleep.

Intrusive thought and trying to control the thought are associated with insomnia. Insomnia has been provoked by unpleasant images which has been related more to intimate relationships.[9] Intrusive thoughts are continuous, uncontrollable, and distressing. Some believe that intrusive thoughts occur because of unrealistic beliefs some people have of being reconciled when they go through heartbreak. The individual's way of thinking has shifted because of this cognitive mechanism of change. Much research has found that intrusive thoughts are like the rebound effect, in which if you are told to not think of a white bear, you end up only thinking about a white bear. So, suppression causes the intrinsic thoughts to occur more than usual.[10]

Broken heart syndrome[edit]

In many legends and fictional tales, characters die after suffering a devastating loss. But even in reality people die from what appears to be a broken heart. Broken heart syndrome is commonly described as a physical pain in the heart or chest area, which is due to the emotional stress caused by a traumatic breakup or the death of a loved one.

Broken heart syndrome mimics symptoms of a heart attack, but it is clinically different from a heart attack because the patients have few risk factors for heart disease and were previously healthy prior to the heart muscles weakening. Some echocardiograms expressed how the left ventricle, of people with the broken heart syndrome, was contracting normally but the middle and upper sides of the heart muscle had weaker contractions due to inverted T waves and longer Q-T intervals that are associated with stress. Investigators recorded heart abnormalities and failures with no revealed clogged arteries, unlike real heart attacks. Some neurological processes are suggested to cause the feeling a "the heart breaking", but these studies are based on small samples. Some of the processes include increased catecholamines that cause spasms in the coronary arteries and can cause loss of blood flow to leads to a transient stunning of the heart. There can also be a failure to provide enough oxygen to the heart by the arteries. Magnetic resonance images suggested that the recovery rates for those suffering from "broken heart syndrome" are faster than those who had heart attacks and complete recovery to the heart is achieved within two months.

Endocrine and immune dysfunction[edit]

Physiological and biochemical changes that contribute to higher physical illnesses and heart diseases have been found in individuals that have high levels of anxiety and depression. Some bereaved individuals who have divorced have compromised immune systems because of inflammatory cytokines followed by a state of depression.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Green, Terisa (2003). The tattoo encyclopedia: a guide to choosing your tattoo. Simon and Schuster. p. 113. 
  2. ^ Diane Swanbrow (25 March 2011). "Study illuminates the 'pain' of social rejection". University of Michigan News Service. Retrieved 3 Nov 2011. 
  3. ^ Kross, Ethan; Berman, Marc G; et al (12 April 2011). "Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain." (free PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (15): 6270–5. doi:10.1073/pnas.1102693108. PMC 3076808. PMID 21444827. Retrieved 3 Nov 2011. 
  4. ^ MacDonald, G; Leary MR (2005). "Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain." (free PDF). Psychological Bulletin 131 (2): 202–223. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.2.202. PMID 15740417. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Emery, Robert; Coan, Jim (March 2010). "What causes chest pain when feelings are hurt?". Scientific American Mind. 
  6. ^ Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD (July 2004). "Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain" (free PDF). TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 8 (7): 294–300. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010. PMID 15242688. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  7. ^ Eisenberger, NI; Lieberman, MD; Williams, KD; Forgas, JP; Von Hippel, W (2005). "Why It Hurts to Be Left Out: The Neurocognitive Overlap Between Physical and Social Pain". The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection and bullying. pp. 109–127. ISBN 1-84169-424-X. 
  8. ^ Deeds, O. (2009). Breakup distress in university students. Adolescence, 44, 705+. Retrieved from Student Resources in Context database. (Accession No.GALE|A217847445)
  9. ^ a b Field, T. (2011). Romantic Breakups, Heartbreak and Bereavement—Romantic Breakups. Psychology, 2, 382-387.
  10. ^ Peirce, A. G. (2007). From intrusive to oscillating thoughts. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 21, 278-286. DOI: 10.1016/j.apnu.2007.06.005

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