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Why does love hurt so much? Everything you need to know

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There are a lot of emotions tied into love. It doesn’t just stand on its own.

And when you realize how deeply those emotions cut into your being, it’s no wonder we are afraid of feeling love and experiencing it sometimes.

If you’ve ever had your heart broken, you know the pain that can follow a break-up or loss. Love hurts and can cut like a thousand knives.

But why? What happens in our bodies that we physically react to the emotions of love?

They are, afterall, brought about by thoughts in our heads.

So if thoughts in our head can cause us to feel love, then thoughts in our head can cause us to feel pain as well.

Being burned by love can hurt so bad, physically and mentally, that some people don’t trust the process a second time and choose to move through this life unattached and protecting themselves from one of life’s greatest pains: the loss of love.

The loss of love can sting like a bee.

Humans are hardwired to react.

We see a threat and we run in the other direction. We’re not built to stick around and love people.

We care for and nurture those around us, but our animal instincts are not designed to have us coping with the drama of love affairs and heartbreak.

Instead of figuring out how to rewire our brains to meet the needs of modern love and heartbreak, we continue to react to it the way we would a dangerous saber-toothed tiger from long ago: we run from it. We fear it.

Our brains perceive a break-up the same way as a tiger trying to eat us in the jungle. Our brain just wants to get away from that pain as quickly as possible.

The threat of losing ourselves because of the loss of love is as real to our brains as the perceived threat, or likened threat, or being lunch for a large ferocious cat.

Love physically hurts because our bodies release hormones and endorphins to protect us and ready us to move as quickly as possible away from the perceived threat.

But that threat lingers in our mind for days, weeks, months and even years in some cases. That’s one hell of a tiger, isn’t it?

Why Break Ups Are So Hard – Social Rejection on the Ego, Body, and Mind

The sadness you experience after a break up can feel like the worst set of emotions you ever have to deal with in your life, paralleled only by the tragic death of a family member or loved one.

But why exactly do we react so negatively to the loss of a romantic partner?

The Ego

A break up is the most significant instance of social rejection that you simply can’t prepare yourself for until it happens.

It is not only a rejection of your companionship but a rejection of your efforts and perceived personal potential. It is a kind of social rejection unlike any other.

It turns out that the way we deal with the loss of a long-term relationship is similar to how we deal with the death of a loved one, according to mental health experts.

The symptoms of both relationship depression and death grieving overlap, caused by the loss of someone we have learned to depend on in our lives, emotionally or otherwise.

However, the loss of a romantic relationship affects us even more deeply than the death of a loved one, because the circumstances are a result of our own self rather than an accident or event that we could not prevent.

A break up is a negative reflection of our self-worth, shaking the foundations on which your ego is built.

The break up is much more than just the loss of the person you loved, but the loss of the person you imagined yourself as while you were with them.

The Body

Appetite loss. Swollen muscles. Stiff necks. The “break up cold”. The number of physical ailments associated with the post-breakup depression isn’t a coincidence, nor is it a game of the mind.

Various studies have found that the body does break down in certain ways after a breakup, meaning the pangs of heartache you feel after breaking up with your ex aren’t just products of your imagination.

But why do we feel physical pain when we lose something that should just cause emotional distress?

The truth is that the line between physical pain and emotional pain isn’t as solid as we once thought.

After all, pain in general – whether emotional or physical – is a product of the brain, meaning if the brain is triggered in the right way, physical pain can manifest from emotional grief.

Here are the neurological and chemical explanations behind your not-so-imagined post-breakup physical pain:

  • Headaches, stiff neck, and tight or squeezed chest: Caused by the significant release of stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) after the sudden loss of feel-good hormones (oxytocin and dopamine). The excess cortisol causes the body’s major muscle groups to tense and tighten
  • Appetite loss, diarrhea, cramps: The rush of cortisol to the major muscle groups demands extra blood to those areas, meaning less blood is present to maintain proper function in the digestive system
  • “Break up cold” and sleeping problems: Increase of stress hormones leads to the vulnerable immune system and difficulty with sleeping

While cortisol explains the everyday physical pangs and pains you feel after a breakup, there is an addictive element behind the perceived post-breakup physical pain.

Researchers have found that an individual experiences relief from any ongoing physical pain when they hold hands with a loved one, and we can become addicted to this dopamine-fueled pain relief.

This addiction leads to physical pain occurring when we think of our previous partner shortly after a breakup, as the brain desires the release of dopamine but experiences stress hormone release instead.

In one study, it was found that when participants were shown pictures of their exes, the parts of their brain predominantly linked with physical pain were significantly simulated.

In fact, the physical pain after a break up is so real that many researchers now recommend taking Tylenol to alleviate post-breakup depression.

The Mind

Reward Addiction: As we discussed above, the mind becomes addicted to the satisfaction during a relationship, and the loss of the relationship leads to a kind of withdrawal.

In one study involving brain scan studies on participants in romantic relationships, it was found that they had increased activity in the parts of the brain most associated with rewards and expectations, the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus.

While being with your partner stimulates these reward systems, the loss of your partner leads to a brain that is expecting the stimulation but no longer receives it.

This leads to the brain experiencing delayed grief, as it has to relearn how to function properly without the reward stimulation.

Blind Euphoria: There are also cases where you don’t know exactly why you are still in love with your ex-partner.

Your friends and family show you all their flaws, but your brain is simply unable to process these flaws or add them up when weighing their character.

This is known as “blind euphoria”, a process that is ingrained into our brains to encourage reproduction.

According to researchers, the saying “love is blind” actually has neurological underpinnings.

When we fall in love with someone, our brain puts us in a state of “blind euphoria”, in which we are less likely to notice or judge their negative behavior, emotions, and traits.

Researchers theorize that the purpose of this love blindness is to encourage reproduction, as studies have found that it generally wanes after a period of 18 months.

This is why you might still find yourself hopelessly head over heels with your ex long after you have broken up with them.

Evolutionary Pain: Much of the nuances of our modern behavior can be traced back to evolutionary developments, and the heartache after a break up is no different.

A break up causes an overwhelming sense of loneliness, anxiety, and danger, no matter how much support you might actually have from your environment and personal community.

Some psychologists believe this has something to do with our primordial memories, or sensations ingrained in us after thousands of years of evolution.

While losing your partner matters very little to your well-being in modern society, the loss of a mate was a much bigger deal in pre-modern societies, leading to the loss of status or place in your tribe or community.

This led to the development of a deep fear of being alone that we still haven’t totally managed to shake off, and perhaps never will.

Our thoughts cause our realities.

One thing is for sure, the thoughts we have create the feelings we experience in this life. Whether you buy into the woo-woo of creating your own reality or not, the thoughts you have do bring about feelings inside you.

If you tell yourself that your heartbreak is like being hit by a bus, your brain can conjure up that image and release chemicals into your body that make you feel physical pain.

This doesn’t happen for everyone, of course, but we’ve all heard of people who claim to want to die of a broken heart.

They feel like their life is over and the physical pain of heartbreak, although disputed, is very real for many people.

If you choose to think, “who cares, I didn’t like him anyway” instead of, “he ripped my heart out when he left” you’ll have a very different kind of heartbreak experience.

You might feel nothing at all except relief that your horrible boyfriend is gone.

But if you are tied to this person emotionally and have a lot invested in who you are as a person, it will feel like you are literally dying if they walk out on you.

It’s all because of the thoughts you choose to have in dealing with those situations.

Your brain isn’t smart enough to tell the difference.

If you keep telling yourself that heartbreak is like being hit by a bus, or you liken it to a physical event you had and keep playing it over and over again in your mind, your brain won’t be able to tell the difference.

The brain focuses on what you tell it to focus on. So if you don’t worry about a breakup and move on with your life, there won’t be any dramatic feelings around it.

If you keep telling yourself that your life is over, you’ll keep feeling like it is and your brain will comply.

It just needs to focus on something so try to make it focus on the good outcomes of these bad situations instead of focusing on how much your chest hurts because your boyfriend said goodbye.

Focusing on what you can do now, instead of focusing on the past will help you to overcome those feelings of defeat and anguish.

Those are powerful words, but they are commonly used when heartbreak occurs. We attach ourselves to other people as if we didn’t live entire lives before they came into ours.

We forget that our brains and bodies are separate from theirs, although it’s easy to get caught up in their lives and feel like we are a part of them.

Love physically hurts because we want it to. Plain and simple.

If we wanted to have a different outcome, we would. It’s not what people want to hear, but as humans, we crave drama and chaos.

It’s part of our hardwiring: remember the tiger?

So when there are no tigers to be seen, someone needs to take its place. Heartbreak, for many, is the next best thing.

We get to stay victims and run away from the scary, potentially harmful things in our lives.

But a different thought, action or idea could change all of that. When was the last time you saw a tiger roaming around anyway?

Our bodies are incredible.

Do you ever stop to think about how amazing it is that your heart is beating, your eyes are blinking, and your lungs are bringing air into your body so you can be alive long enough to read this?

Our ability to see, hear, learn, speak, read, dance, laugh, plan, and act of our own volition is a wonderous thing.

Yet we don’t ever stop to think about how it is that we are standing here until we experience pain in these bodies. When pain strikes, it stops us in our tracks.

As humans, we have mastered the art of getting over physical pain. We have treatments and medical interventions to improve our quality of life when we break a leg or have a headache.

We’re good if we stub our toe after a few minutes of rubbing it or icing it. We can go to therapy to learn how to talk again after a stroke. The physical pain subsides.

But emotional pain is often far more dangerous and can alter the course of someone’s life in the most unimaginable ways.

As a society, we haven’t yet mastered how to deal with emotional pain. And it shows.

So many people walk around heartbroken in life.

And the saddest part is that heartbreak doesn’t always have to do with romantic love lost.

It often has to do with our early experiences in life, being let down, abused, abandoned or excluded by friends and family.

That kind of heartbreak doesn’t repair itself and we aren’t good at helping people find ways to manage the physical pain that can erupt from emotional pain.

It’s like we don’t treat it with the same kind of respect.

Romantic love can cause people to do outlandish things when it goes away. We are very good at breaking each other’s hearts.

We are not good at repairing them. And when you find yourself swirling over a break-up, it can feel like your entire world is falling apart.

It’s because we’re not taught how to manage our emotions, our minds and our thoughts about this kind of thing. We’re taught, albeit not on purpose, that love is supposed to hurt.

That humans don’t have to stay together and can pick and choose the people they want to love and don’t want to love.

These kinds of messages leave us reeling and wondering about our own worth when things go south in our love lives.

And it creates a sense of worthlessness that can cause extreme pain in people’s lives.

We don’t know how to support one another and help each other through heartbreak the way we know how to show up and be by someone’s bedside as they pass away in old age.

It’s as if we are afraid of our own emotions and the power they have over us. No wonder we don’t want to face facts when relationships are falling apart.

It’s hard work to figure out what to do with those emotions. It can be so disorienting that we experience physical pain from the act of avoiding decision-making.

If you’ve ever had a headache from being stressed out at work, that’s a physical reaction to your thoughts and emotions.

Until we figure out how to manage our mind so that we don’t experience those physical pains, we’ll continue to treat heartbreak – and headaches in the office – like they are the end of the world sometimes.

Feeling physical pain as a result of heartbreak is not uncommon.

Many people feel pain in their stomach, back, legs, head, and chest. Anxiety, depression and thoughts of hurting oneself can all be present when physical pain is a result of emotional distress.

Think about the last relationship that ended for you: how did your body react? Did your knees hit the floor? Did you cry? Did you get physically ill and vomit? Did you sleep it off for days in bed and ignore the problem?

Our bodies are hardwired to just react. It’s what we do best. It’s not until you realize that the thoughts you have create the results you get that you can begin to gather some control over that physical pain. In some cases, extreme cases, people may experience nerve pain and ghost pains as a result of heartbreak.

Our bodies can become so stressed out because of our thoughts that it starts going into reaction mode and causing many other problems.

The shock of being left at the altar, when your husband or wife moves out suddenly, or finding out your spouse is cheating on you are all akin to being chased through the Serengeti by a wild animal looking for its next meal: your body just freaks out.

If you are experiencing physical pain because of a recent heartbreak, take some time to think about your thoughts related to the situation.

While you might need to talk to a professional to help you learn to think new thoughts about what has happened, simply paying attention to what you are thinking can help you see that a new reality is on the horizon.

Noticing is an important part of getting control of your brain. It’s out of control all the time, running around free in the world without a care for how it is making you feel.

Stop. Think. And decide that you are going to find someone to help you get through this difficult time and you might find that the pain starts to subside.

Make no mistake though, the pain is very real. Your pain is real. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You are entitled to your thoughts and feelings.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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