March 28, 2011 -- As anyone who's experienced a broken heart, and as countless songs, stories and movies confirm, love can hurt. That pain, according to a new study, is physical as well as emotional.
Researchers led by Ethan Kross, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, found that the experience of social rejection, such as a romantic breakup, activates the same parts of the brain involved in sensing physical pain.
"These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection 'hurts,'" the authors wrote.
Experts believe this study can offer new insight into the complexities of social rejection, and how the experience can be emotionally and physically debilitating.
"The psychic pain that follows from the breakup of a relationship definitely affects physical health," said Susan Heitler, a Denver clinical psychologist. "Research has shown, for instance, that grieving increases the risk of heart attacks."
Heitler also said rejection can lead to depression and avoidance of other relationships.
Bonnie Levin, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, said the study highlights a biological link between social pain and physical pain, something that has been long suspected.
"It shows us that social pain and physical pain share a common neurocircuitry," Levin said. "It involves a highly specific pattern of brain activation, and this finding is really important."
She also said this biological similarity helps explain why breakups hit some people harder than others.
"Just as some of us are better able to tolerate pain, some of us are more vulnerable to experiencing rejection," she said.
Responses to Physical and Social Pain Similar
The physiological link also helps explain why many people respond to social pain and physical pain in similar ways. Rather than deal with the intense emotions that come with the loss of a romantic relationship, people often avoid them and shun other relationships because being social feels too painful. They respond to physical pain the same way.
"People make a lot of conclusions that physical pain is too much to manage. They believe the best way to deal with it is to lie down and shut out the world," said Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. "The brain is not wired to differentiate between physical pain and social pain."
No matter what kind of pain a person experiences because of a loss, experts say it's vital to address it.
"Loss of a relationship is one of the prime triggers of suicide," said Heitler. "Breakups can prove fatal."