So we have all been there. That horrible moment when our beloved tells us that this is the end. The dreaded breakup. For many of us, this ranks among the worst emotional experiences of our lives. Painful. Yet how does this type of emotional pain differ from the pain we experience when we stub our toe in the middle of the night or scald our tongue on molten pizza?
Pamela Paul writes in the NY Times about a new study that uses brain imaging to discover how these experiences might be related. Previous research has found that there is indeed similar neural areas that light up on the fMRI pictures of brains experiencing both physical and emotional pain. Although the brain seems to process the emotional component of painful experiences similarly, there are known to be distinct areas that process the bodily sensation of pain- my aching toe, my blistering tongue.
What the new study suggests is that if the social rejection is powerful enough, a devastating break up for instance, the brain may in fact engage areas that process painful physical stimuli. We may not feel a specific pain in our toe after a breakup, but perhaps the physical pain is more diffuse, an overall ache. The researchers in this study found that when testing people who had recently broke up with a partner activated similar brain regions for physical pain when looking at their lover and recalling the moment when they were dumped as when they experienced hot coffee being spilled on their arm! It has been thought that people may experience various forms of chronic pain such as fibromyalgia after a history of social rejection.
It's not too difficult to imagine that a person who too often experiences the feelings of anger, sadness, shame, and anxiety after a break up or even a bitter argument with a friend or family member might also start to feel declines in physical health. We are social creatures, we thrive on the comfort, safety and joy we experience when we are with those closest to us. When that source of nourishment and security is often threatened we may be more likely to actually feel physical pain.