Most of us see the connection between social and physical pain as a figurative one. We agree that “love hurts,” but we don’t think it hurts the way that, say, being kicked in the shin hurts. At the same time, life often presents a compelling argument that the two types of pain share a common source. Old couples frequently make the news because they can’t physically survive without one another. In one example from early 2012, Marjorie and James Landis of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who’d been married for 65 years, died just 88 minutes apart.
Truth is you don’t have to be a sentimentalist to believe in broken hearts — being a subscriber to the New England Journal of Medicine will do. A few years ago a group of doctors at Johns Hopkins University reported a rare but lethal heart condition caused by acute emotional distress. The problem is technically known as “stress cardiomyopathy,” but the press likes to call it “broken heart syndrome,” and medical professionals don’t object to the nickname.
Behavioral science is catching up with the anecdotes, too. In the past few years, psychology researchers have found a good deal of literal truth embedded in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain regions involved in processing physical pain overlap considerably with those tied to social anguish. The connection is so strong that traditional bodily painkillers seem capable of relieving our emotional wounds. Love may actually hurt, like hurt hurt, after all.
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