Break-Ups, Calamities Spur Mental, Physiological Changes
When her husband left her after more than 25 years together, science writer Florence Williams says her body felt like it had been plugged into a faulty electrical socket. "I can almost describe it like a brain injury," she says. "I wasn't sleeping at all. I felt really agitated," National Public Radio (NPR) reported recently.
Photo Insert: Falling in love actually stimulates the parts of the brain responsible for producing stress hormones — perhaps as a way to prepare for heartbreak.
Williams wanted to understand her physical reaction to the breakup, so she began speaking to scientists in the US and England about the connection between emotional and physical pain.
Williams noted that falling in love actually stimulates the parts of the brain responsible for producing stress hormones — perhaps as a way to prepare for heartbreak.
The brain creates these stress hormones, she says, "so that when our partner leaves or sort of disappears, we get so agitated that we are motivated to go find them or feel so grateful when they come back." In other words, we're biologically primed from the start to feel stress when a relationship ends.
“Your bodies really co-regulate when you live in such close proximity and in an intimate way with someone. Your heartbeats actually regulate when you're asleep. Your cortisol levels line up — your morning and evening cortisol levels. Your respiration rates sometimes align. There are a lot of studies showing that when you put a couple in a brain scanner and you give them a task, their brain waves actually sync up in the same way. Whereas if you put one of those people in a scanner with someone they don't know very well, that doesn't happen,” Williams said.
“There was something about the traumatic events of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake that released so many stress hormones that people's hearts were actually kind of stunned. We used to think that heartbreak was just a metaphor, but people started noticing it after a big earthquake in Japan that a lot of people were coming into the hospital with heart attacks. These weren't people who had risk factors for heart attacks. They didn't have any blocked arteries when their hearts were imaged. There were no signs of blockages or plaque breaking free. There was something about the traumatic events of that earthquake that released so many stress hormones that people's hearts were actually kind of stunned. The [heart] changed shape so that there was a lobe that was distended and not able to pump very effectively. ... This condition was called takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” she stressed.