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Why love hurts ... literally

As Valentine's Day beckons, Concordia exercise scientist Andreas Bergdahl explains why breakups are not for the faint of heart
February 7, 2017
By Meagan Boisse

Meagan Boisse is an undergraduate in Concordia's Department of Journalism.

After a recent breakup, I found myself curled up on the couch with ice cream, a chocolate bar and Benedict Cumberbatch. Might Sherlock solve the mystery of the suddenly vanished boyfriend?

Since my relationship dissolved, I’d been queasy and agitated.

While everyone experiences heartbreak differently, feeling physically off-kilter is not uncommon, according to Andreas Bergdahl, associate professor of exercise science in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Love hurts — both literally and figuratively. In other words, that pain in your chest? It’s real.

“Sudden emotional stress can result in weakened heart muscles. It’s called broken heart syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” Bergdahl says.

The specialist in cardiovascular physiology notes that the most likely cause is a rapid shift in circulating hormones.

Bergdahl explains that when we are in love our brains are flooded with neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that make us experience happiness and pleasure. Following heartache, all those chemicals are washed out of the system, opening up the way for stress-induced hormones.

“The fact that this shift can happen so quickly adds additional stress on your system, thus the pain and nausea.”

‘Much faster recovery rates’

But there is a silver lining. While you might feel like you’re dying, you’re not. And you — at least the physiological you — will get over it in time.

“An important aspect of broken heart syndrome is that the recovery rates are much faster than what is typically seen following a heart attack,” Bergdahl assures.

“Emotionally stressed individuals demonstrate drastic improvements in pumping ability within days to weeks.”

As for improving your mood, while therapy might be the answer, it is also possible to give your body a boost.

“Exercise, at an appropriate intensity, will increase blood flow and lead to the washout of the stress chemicals and a strengthening of overall well-being. It is also a great way to keep your mind occupied and flooded with ‘feel-good’ chemicals.”

Though Bergdahl admits that the biological pathways underlying the link between physical and emotional pain are still not perfectly understood, feelings do play a huge role.

Maybe it’s time to put down the chocolate bar, get off the couch and pick up yoga. Or running. The operative word being “maybe...”

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Exercise Science.


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