17 Aug 2023

What is heartbreak - and can it kill you?

From Nights, 9:45 pm on 17 August 2023
Stylised image of two halves of a pale pink broken heart threaded on string against a black background.

Heartbreak hurts, but it's also a useful learning experience says an academic studying how people respond to romantic rejection. Photo: Kelly Sikkema for Unsplash

In 1999, a song by US electronica musician Moby asked 'Why does my heart feel so bad?'

While the song failed to come up with a convincing answer, a Dutch academic is doing his best to discover one.

Dr Freddy van der Veen, associate professor of psychology at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, is no stranger to heartbreak (“it doesn’t feel nice at all”). He's studying how people react to “mini-heartbreaks” during online dating.

He told Nights that heartbreak is a combination of psychological and physiological effects.

When someone is experiencing heartbreak, it’s difficult to distinguish between emotional and physical pain, Dr van der Veen says.

“I think we all know the feeling of heartbreak. That's more than just this subjective experience of unease or stress. It's really physical. You feel this knot in your in your stomach and bowels. You feel shortness of breath, you feel you feel it in your heart, even. It’s an extreme response of your body.”

Dr Freddy van der Veen

Dr Freddy van der Veen Photo: Supplied

The emotional and physical sensations of heartbreak are a learning signal, he says.

“When you have a broken heart and you feel the pain from a breakup of losing a spouse, next time around you might behave differently because you want to avoid this pain.”

His research studies online dating to see how people respond and react when they’re being judged or evaluated by others.

“It’s not the actual real, very painful heartbreaks I'm doing my research on, it's really the mini-heartbreak, because it would be very unethical to have an experiment where we experimentally break up some some person's relationship.

“So this is not the real heartbreak, but this is something like ok, you are being rejected by this other person that you possibly like to go on a date with. But even in that simple, very mild situation, we see some physiological changes.

“We have noticed that there is a short-lived heart rate deceleration following this romantic rejection. And this heartbreak deceleration is possibly related to something we call freezing behaviour. Basically, you stop moving about and stop using your body, and focus on the outside world.”

There’s an evolutionary purpose to heartbreak, in humans and animals alike, he says.

“We all want to have the stable relationship and to learn from relationships, maybe this painful experience of breakup can help you to move further and to learn and to have a better relationship next time around. So yes, I think we always have felt this, this pain, and we also see it in the animal world of course. I think even the animals, like elephants and geese and swans, can also experience this pain from this broken relationship.”

Can you die from a broken heart? Dr van der Veen says it’s possible, but rare.

“It's a very big stressor for all of us to have your spouse or your intimate friends pass away, of course, or when your relationship is broken off, and you're not the one breaking up. Obviously it's a very stressful situation.

“In very extreme circumstances, it's very much possible that you even have some damage to your heart and even such damage that that you can die from it. But of course, it's very extreme and obviously not everybody dies from a broken heart.”