Second-year Business Administration student Rayyan (20) can still remember exactly how it felt when his relationship ended last year. “It felt like I was in some kind of hell”, he says. He and his girlfriend had entered into a relationship in secondary school and had been together for three years. When his then girlfriend decided to study in Cologne, Germany, Rayyan chose Erasmus University so that he could see her relatively often. “But in her opinion, a long-distance relationship didn’t work”, he says. “We didn’t see each other as often as we wanted to and couldn’t make much time for each other because of our studies.” That is why she ended the relationship.
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For Rayyan, the decision came as a real blow. “I couldn’t function properly for days. I locked myself in my room and didn’t do anything except watch movies and play games. I didn’t feel like eating or showering”, he remembers. “It literally weighed heavy on my chest. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it was like having a rock on my chest.”
According to researcher Freddy van der Veen, Rayyan’s experience is a perfect example of how a broken heart can cause physical pain. Van der Veen investigated romantic rejection by simulating online dating. The subjects were single straight men and women who were looking for a romantic partner. Just like on a dating app, they were shown profiles of each other and had to answer a question: do you want to go on a date with this person? The subjects were then confronted with the other person’s assessment: they were told whether they had a match or whether the candidates had rejected them.
The researcher was particularly interested in how people reacted to being rejected by someone. The experiment showed that the heart rate slows down in the face of romantic rejection. “We also see that the pain network in the brain is active when you experience rejection, just like when you are in physical pain”, he continues. “So you can genuinely experience psychological pain, like a broken heart, as physical pain. Sometimes, people describe the pain as ‘a knot in the stomach’, but you could also be short of breath or experience pressure on your chest.”
According to Van der Veen, this means there is evidence that rejection can trigger a pain response. “And if a broken heart is a pain response, you should be able to lessen it”, says the researcher.
In a follow-up experiment, he investigated the impact of painkillers on psychological pain. In the experiment, subjects evaluated each other on the basis of a photo. Afterwards, they had to indicate whether they thought the other person rated them positively as well. “In general, people think they are liked more often than not. This is a healthy way to look at the outside world. We call this a positive bias”, explains Van der Veen.
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In the experiment, he saw that the positive bias decreases as you start to be rejected more often. “We interpreted that as the painful situation reducing your positivity”, he says. But in subjects who took paracetamol, we did not see this drop in positivity. “Because the pain caused by rejection is lessened by paracetamol, there may be less reason to adjust your expectations”, says Van der Veen. “It may sound strange, but just like with physical pain, you could also take paracetamol to reduce psychological pain.” He stressed that this still needs to be investigated further.
‘It turned out that bromance also works well in helping you recover from a broken heart’
Did student Rayyan take paracetamol for his broken heart? “If only I’d known!”, he laughs. “After a week of crying, I’d had enough and went out with the boys – just having fun and going crazy. It turned out that bromance also works well in helping you recover from a broken heart.”