Can You Ever Mend A Broken Heart?

When you're hurting, is it better to be more like a squid or a swan?

Posted Mar 31, 2015

Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Source: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

On March 5, 2015 the Moscow Times reported that Gvidon, a mute swan, died of depression at the Limpopo Zoo a few months after his life partner, Tsarevna, was cruelly killed by a zoo visitor. Why is grief so powerful that when a loved one is lost, some individuals die?

In her TED talk Dr. Helen Fisher, author of several books including Anatomy of Love, talks about what happens to you, or rather to your brain, when a relationship ends. The same area of the brain is activated both in good times and in bad times. The consequence? The same obsession that filled you with joy now consumes you with grief. Another area of the brain hijacks this obsession and leads you to try figure out why the relationship ended and even compels you to go to great lengths to preserve this "love."

But finally, perhaps the greatest source of pain may stem from the deep attachment we form with others. A little almond-shaped brain structure, the amygdala, which is ironically known as the fight-or-flight control center, is involved in the profound sense of closeness we develop with others, including romantic partners. Think about that for a moment: The place in our brain that is involved in forming deep emotional attachments and romantic love is also the part of our brain that is activated during times of extreme danger.

Cygnus olor". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Cygnus olor". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This might explain why, when we lose a loved one—either through death, as in Gvidon’s case—or as a result of betrayal, or simply a breakup, we can feel extreme emotional pain, stress, and trauma. It is that feeling when your chest is hurting and you feel as though your heart is breaking. We think of this metaphorically, but research shows that if the trauma is severe enough one can die from a broken heart (Broken Heart Syndrome). Perhaps it is the shock to the system and an extreme response in the brain, the amygdala even, sending a rush of chemicals coursing through your body launching you into a constant and extreme fight or flight state that causes BHS in some people. We don't really know. But we do know that, despite the popular saying, time does not always mend a broken heart.

Many other species share these brain structures with us, and in those that form intense social and mating bonds, the depth of their pain and grief parallels our own, as Dr. Marc Bekoff noted in a post about grief in animals. When we look at other species and their grief, some, like Gvidon, may die when they lose their partner, a close friend, or a child. Whether it be elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, geese, swans, wolves, foxes, or even our own pets, some individuals are simply not able to move on.

Those of us that do move on bear the scars of our pain in other ways. We may be wary of new relationships, or we may be hypervigilant and always looking for a sign that things are going awry, in an effort to protect ourselves and not experience such pain again.

Public Domain Wikimedia Commons
Source: Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Research on squid is revealing how pain is there to protect us, but it comes at cost—constant vigilance. Like us, when a squid experiences a traumatic event—say, a predator attack—if it survives the initial assault, it remains on the defensive and more alert to future attacks. Interestingly, these hypervigilant squid had higher survival rates than squid that had had their pain perception blocked. So in a very real sense, our reluctance to open up to another person, our caution, if you will, could be there to protect us from future pain.

When it comes to relationships, though, the very mechanisms that are there to protect us from pain can lead to problems, or keep us isolated, unwilling to risk it all for love and form a new deep attachment to another person. How do we move on? How do we balance taking risks with learning from mistakes? In other words, how do we act less like a squid? It’s not clear that there is a right answer, but perhaps acknowledging our wounds is a good place to start.