Nomar* was in love. He had never been happier. He and his girlfriend Marissa* were talking about moving in together and eventually getting married. For the first time in his life, he could imagine himself becoming a father. And then something seemed to go wrong: Marissa was tired and irritable when they were together. She didn’t want to spend as much time with him. She didn’t answer when he asked what was wrong. And suddenly, without warning, she told him that it was over. Nomar went from disbelief to incredible pain. It hurt to know that the woman he loved did not love him anymore. He fluctuated between rage and terrible sadness. And he missed Marissa, who had been his best friend, more than he could say.
Talia* and Jason* had been living together for almost two years. Talia wanted to get married and start a family. Jason said he wanted it too, but that they weren’t ready yet. “What will it take for us to be ready?” she asked. Jason could say only that he knew it wasn’t time. Six months later, he still wasn’t ready, and Talia decided that she had to break up with him. But she dreaded the pain and hurt she knew she would feel. It took her another six months to get up the courage to say goodbye. What she didn’t realize was that her decision would also hurt Jason. He sobbed when she told him she was leaving. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I love you. I just can’t marry you.” He never did explain why.
We all know that hearts don’t really break, but it can be hard to believe it when a relationship is ending. Not only can you feel a physical pain in your chest, where your heart seems to be cracking, but also you probably feel plenty of other pain as well—your head, stomach, maybe your whole body seems bruised and aching. And even your spirit or psyche, or whatever you call your emotional center, is reeling with pain. Just try telling yourself that it’s all in your head: The truth is, it isn’t.
Recent research has shown that we feel an emotional wound in the same way (and sometimes in the same part of our brain) as we feel physical injury. In fact, phrases like “broken heart," “wounded spirit,” or “hurt feelings” are not simply metaphors. According to a group of researchers headed by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, evidence shows that emotional pain activates the same part of your brain as physical pain. (See the terrific blogs by my PT colleagues Peg Streep and Melanie Greenberg on some of the fascinating research into the physical connections to emotional pain.)
So what does this mean about recovering from the breakup of a relationship?
First, it means recognizing that you are suffering from an injury. These steps toward recovery are based on physician-recommended procedures for healing from a physical injury.
Copyright @ F. Diane Barth 2014
Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, Tor D. Wager. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 April 12; 108(15): 6270–6275. Published online 2011 March 28. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102693108 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3076808/ PMCID: PMC3076808 Accessed November 1, 2014
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