The Science of Heartbreak

The wonder of being in love is incredible, an emotion like no other and something you can share with your partner, family or even your beloved pet gerbil. However, with love comes pain, and when these deep-rooted connections are lost, heartbreak becomes all too real. But, is this heartbreak only restricted to our mind? Or can it overwhelm our body, causing physiological changes, and in extreme cases even death?


If you begin by searching online, you will be inundated by stories where lifelong couples have died in this bittersweet way. ‘Heartbreak’ can be categorised as the cause of death for the widow/widower, sometimes as soon as a few hours after their spouse/partner has died. And in these really unfortunate circumstances, similar to the love story of ‘The Notebook’, and a very sad end to their lives we start to question whether the breaking of their heart emotionally, is truly causing their hearts to stop.

Therefore, studies have been conducted into the phenomenon of a ‘broken heart’, in terms of bereavement. For example, a study published in JAMA – Internal Medicine (March, 2014) from researchers at St. George’s University of London, identified a 100% increase in the incidence of heart attack or stroke after the death of a loved one (partner), during the first 30 days. With 16 for every 10,000 of the heartbroken patients suffering from one of the cardiovascular conditions, while the control population only had 8 in every 10,000. This highlights how acute grief is capable of causing adverse effects to the health of the heart. Participants of the study were made up of over-60 patients, split into those with and without their partner (due to death).

Other studies, like the one conducted by the University of Glasgow in 2008, measured large samples of couples and determined a rate of mortality spike in relation to those suffering from the loss of a spouse, in the first 6 months. The increased chance of death, from any cause, was by 30% in the Glasgow study, while a similar study in Jerusalem gave up to a 50% increased likelihood. Even a 1996 study of 158,000 Finnish couples, demonstrated a correlation between the sudden death of a significant other and a higher incidence rate of mortality.

Taking these studies into consideration, you can begin to appreciate that grief at this level can certainly have a physiological response, as well as the emotional turmoil it puts people through. The phenomenon is often known as ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ (takotsubo cardiomyopathy), and can produce a heart attack-like event. Although, unlike a regular heart attack (a constriction of the arteries which results in limited blood flow), this type of cardiomyopathy doesn’t have any blockage of the arteries, it is instead caused by the heart being stunned from swelling of the left ventricle. It is speculated that this sudden reaction is a result from the stress of grief, producing excess stress hormone in the pituitary gland (like adrenaline), and once this enters the heart it causes the sudden expansion and temporary disabling of the heart muscle in the left ventricle.

It is important to note, not everyone that goes through heartbreak is going to suffer from the syndrome, as it is only in extreme circumstances that these sort of reactions occur and when the situation is likely dealing with sudden death of a loved one. Heartache can take many forms, and in small doses can still give some physical pain. We process the input of emotional pain as a form of physical discomfort. Resulting in a stress response by the brain, causing a host of different problems depending on the level of stress induced. This results in common symptoms, like sweaty palms, increased heart rate and quick, shallow breathing.

Interestingly, brain imaging scans have demonstrated how the pain of rejection from a relationship ending stimulates the same neural pathways as the physical pain of grabbing a hot cup of tea with your bare hands. Detecting links, such as these, have allowed us to see how ailments like insomnia, flu and asthma attacks can be induced by similar issues.

Animals have also been shown to have a comparable tendency to grieve, and in some cases to die as a result of a ‘broken heart’. For instance, dogs possess an amazing ability to generate very strong connections with their owners, and some even give their lives after their owner has died. There is a famous Scottish tale of a dog called Greyfriars Bobby, who lived in the 19th century, and guarded his master’s grave for 14 years after his owner died of tuberculosis. While a more recent example is of an army dog, Theo, who was a bomb-sniffing dog that died of a fatal seizure on the same day that his handler Lance Cpl. Liam Tusker died in action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Surprisingly, it is not just a bond with owners that animals form, as they can also form monogamous, lifelong connections with their own species. Prime examples are penguins and lovebirds, who have been known to grieve the loss of their significant other, causing more erratic behaviour, which begins to exhibit symptoms of depression. Some animals will even starve themselves to death as a result.

But returning to humans, heartbreak is a complex emotion that has physiological implications, especially in cases where death is involved. People will always react differently to grief, and our body will try and cope with the stress it can create. On the minor side of the spectrum, it will cause anxiety and discomfort, but at the unlikely extreme it could be fatal.

#Psychology #Heartbreak #SamuelWeston

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