The science behind a broken heart explains all

Our brains are designed to panic when the love that sustains us is suddenly removed, says JP O’ Malley.

The science behind a broken heart explains all

I awoke at 5am to a cynical grey sky that had smoothered the morning before it had begun. In the pit of my stomach, a deep pain, like another being had somehow made its way in there. My muscles ached, and a stabbing sensation pulsated in my chest.

‘Man up’, I kept telling myself. ‘Man the fuck up’.

Occasionally, I broke into sweats of panic.

These were just the physical symptoms.

Mentally, I was a mess.

My thoughts sped up haphazardly, veering from intense jealousy to seething anger, back to utter despair. Nostalgia and memories flooded the synapses of my brain, like there was a tap in my head I couldn’t turn off.

It felt as though, from nowhere, some dark force had ripped the happy, stable life I’d been leading from underneath me. Panic and emptiness consumed every conscious moment.

That evening, I got on my bike and cycled. Anywhere, just to take away the intensity. From south-east London into the city: passed the Shard, and over London Bridge, continuing on by the banks of the River Thames.

I watched the monstrous London Eye twirling slowly across the water at Waterloo, and rode passed the House of Commons, all the way to Vauxhall. Every window I passed, there seemed to be a happy couple, eating dinner and with looks of ecstasy on their faces.

‘I think I’m finally beginning to lose my mind’, I whispered, to myself.

It was early July.

It was one week after a woman with whom I had spent three joyful years — and to whom I had been engaged for eight months — had walked out on me.

Over the next two months, I began asking questions:

Was it a weakness in my character? Was I too argumentative?

Too opinionated? Was it about money? Was there someone else?

Had it all become just too quotidian: about bills, plans, and the future? Romantic spontaneity had brought us together in the first place. Had I ruined that?

Or, my personal favourite: was it something I said?

(You go back through every conversation you’ve had with your partner and analyse it for words that may have caused hurt or pain. This takes considerable time and effort).

In the end, though, after weeks of soul searching, you don’t find any answers. Well, I didn’t.

But the hollowness persisted.

Love, I’m convinced, arises in the most unlikely of places.

And randomness is one of evolution’s most beautiful components.

Three years ago, I was stacking chairs opposite Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters, in Jamie’s Wine Bar — behind Liverpool Street station — in an underpaid job I deplored, alongside an attractive 25-year-old woman from Vilnius, called Ieva, and I knew my life was changing for the better.

On our first date, a Sunday morning glistening with warm, June sunshine, we walked together, hungover, up the long path from Highgate Tube station to the cemetery. We paused in front of Marx’s grave to take a photo.

I said: “if only he knew how much damage his ideas would eventually inflict upon the world.” Because she was from Eastern Europe, I thought this might impress her. I’m not even sure if she heard me.

Our friendship moved, passionately, at lightening speed. We became inseparable. We both left the bar job we detested. Within a year, we had moved into a flat together. I set up an office in a basement we both called home, and attempted to become a full-time journalist.

And she returned to university to study anthropology.

Pretty quickly, the connection moved beyond lustful tendencies.

This was about more than sex. We became emotionally dependent on each other. We would debate political issues over dinner; get drunk on cheap red wine and talk about our childhoods, and our appetite to learn about each other’s respective cultures was never-ending.

We would, I was sure, raise a beautiful, happy family together, with the common moral values we seemed to share.

So, last October, I decided to commit. First, I made a secret trip to Hatton Garden to buy the ring. And, a week later, by the banks of the Danube, in Budapest, I got down into a puddle of water in the lashing rain and asked would she be my wife. That night, over champagne, in a posh Italian restaurant that we usually wouldn’t be able to afford, we declared our love to the world on social media.

When you are in the thick of these moments, you feel invincible, fully alive: like you are living in a dream that has nothing but ecstatic possibilities on the horizon.

The engagement, though, was the kiss of death.

Within months she had walked. Reasons weren’t forthcoming. And, in the end, I’m not even sure it matters.

When the love dies, some part of you withers away, too.

In the two months after she left, I began to ask myself: ‘how can I be this weak’?

I normally pride myself on being an independent, resilient, and fearless person, who sees the daily ball-bust of life as something that makes one stronger.

But some days I wept uncontrollably, like a small child: looked at the world with panic and fear.

The stability that had made my life so functional was now gone. I was alone. And all the clichés from caring friends and family, who meant well, didn’t matter a dam.

The more unsympathetic readers among you, who have little time for us sensitive males, are probably shouting at the newspaper in pure disgust: ‘get on with your life O’ Malley and grow a pair of balls’.

You’re certainly be entitled to your opinion.

But what if I told you that this emotion is unavoidable? That it’s hardwired into our DNA to panic when relationships we think are stable suddenly disintegrate without warning?

And what if I said that scientific evidence suggests that social rejection in relationships registers in our brains with an even greater intensity than physical pain?

Believing that reason is a good substitute for mystery and preferring rational thought to prayer, I began to research.

I read The Love Secret, by Dr Sue Johnson, who is a clinical psychologist and a primary leader in emotional-focused couples therapy.

Johnson’s descriptions about feelings of emptiness were spot on. I felt like this woman was reading my mind. What I previously imagined was abnormal seemed to be common.

These feelings are as old as evolution. When I finished the book, I emailed Johnson.

Within a few days, we had an intriguing conversation for an hour.

Johnson lucidly detailed why, as human beings, we feel this sudden panic — that we cannot control — when someone we love leaves us.

“This need for connection is so strong in us, as a species, that when it’s broken, suddenly, with a person that you have come emotionally dependent on, there is a danger cue for your brain,” Johnson said.

“Your brain goes into panic in the same way as any other survival cue does when you are threatened.

“For example, when you can’t get enough air, or water, or if there is something dangerous coming towards you.”

Johnson backs up her claims with clear, proven, scientific data.

Her work on distress in relationships principally comes from two people: John Bowlby and Jaak Panksepp. The former was a British psychiatrist, and the latter is an Estonian neuroscientist and psycho-biologist.

Bowlby’s main contribution to relationship studies was a theory that adult romantic love is an attachment bond, just like the one that exists between a mother and child.

In his work — he did countless experiments analysing how babies reacted to mother’s leaving the room — Bowlby concluded that we are designed to love only a few people, with whom we can securely bond through life.

He believed that this is nature’s plan for the survival of our species. If sex impels us to mate, Bowlby argued that love is what assures our existence.

Pankseep, meanwhile, has analysed rats’ brains. Rats who bond with their mates and rear their young together have a specific neural pathway in the amygdala (the soft nuclei in the temporary lobes in the brain, which process memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions) that switches on automatically when a loved-one is suddenly perceived as unavailable.

Panskepp referred to this separation as “primal panic.”

Since rats are mammals, Panskepp was fully convinced that this neural pathway exists in humans, too.

Johnson said that in this fearful state, muscles tense up; stress hormones are released; blood flow increases; thoughts of pain and other harm arise, and the impulse to freeze or flee forms in our minds.

The elements of this experience are hardwired into us and are inescapable, she said.

“Isolation and lack of response from another human being, who we love, is incredibly confusing and disorientating. We have a hugely difficult time with it, as a species.

“Once we have come to depend on somebody, that lack of contact really is a trigger for fear and panic.”

Over the last 15 years, with the aid of technology, relationship studies have become extremely advanced.

One source of this understanding is an FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan that measures associated changes in blood flow in the brain.

“What the FMRI allow us to do is to look at the physiology that is going on,” said Johnson.

“It can help us look at people’s brains and how they are reacting to things. Naomi Eisenberger, from the University of California, noticed that if you look at people’s brains, it becomes obvious that we process rejection from someone we depend on in the same way in the brain as we process physical pain.”

“This is because we are social animals and we depend on people so much. So, rejection is a big danger cue.

“By looking at FMRI machines, we are learning how powerful these social cues are: in terms of pain, or even in positive changes.”

Johnson said that when these changes are positive, they can be used for the greater good of our personal development: if we learn to face, and connect with, our emotions in a greater capacity.

Not only are psychologists arguing that we need emotional connection to survive, neuroscience is now highlighting that loving human connection is more powerful than our basic survival mechanism: fear.

“The research on emotion has changed,” said Johnson

“We basically distrusted emotion for years. I think because it is so powerful. It’s the most basic processing part of our brain. In our society, we have glorified intellect, and abstract thought.

“But the bottom line is that we just can’t live in that place alone. We need emotions. It’s part of our experience.”

Johnson said our emotions are now the sole basis by which most of us commit to a partner.

Traditionally, marriage was an economic arrangement first, and an act of love second. Emotions, though, Johnson said, are now the primary basis for the most crucial building block of any society: the family unit.

Although I’ve always believed that ideas can increase our happiness, and change the world around us to our own betterment, my own relationship breakdown brought home something very clear to me.

For all our so-called progression in human culture over thousands of years, and however civilised we may think we are as a species, when our most basic needs disappear, without a trace, we really do return to our primordial instincts.

This can be frightening.

The great Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, understood that human reason is a wonderful gift.

But he also saw that, for better or worse, we are creatures of sentiment, emotion, passion, and allegiance.

Burke believed, like Johnson does, and I do, that we are social animals, who live in a society that is relational and networked.

When that network breaks down at its most basic unit — for example, between a man and a woman who love each other — we really can, momentarily, disintegrate into nothing.

The great paradox is that, through reason, I have come to a better understanding of why my own emotions, for a considerable time, supplanted my intellectual capacity to think rationally during this moment of crisis.

It’s now been three months since that dark, July day.

And even though clichés are a pain in the arse, people are correct: time is indeed a great healer and puts things in perspective.

But if you are reading this article, and, for whatever reason, you’ve just lost someone you dearly love and you feel like you may be going half bonkers and nobody understands your pain, don’t worry: what you are feeling is perfectly sane.

And it will pass.

As the late Scottish psychiatrist, RD Laing, wrote:

‘Normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience... the ‘normally’ alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane.

Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labelled by the ‘formal’ majority as bad or mad.”

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