My friend walked up to me at recess with the news. The look on her face was an odd mixture of sympathy and reluctance as she explained to me that my first boyfriend of over a month had decided to break up with me. As a seventh grader, it was my first heartbreak and it was devastating. No, I didn’t really talk to him outside of school, except to sit next to him when our group of friends would go to movies. Okay, I didn’t really talk to him in school either. Our relationship consisted primarily of passing notes, talking in a few stolen minutes after school, and telling other people we were dating while actually interacting very little. Yet somehow the month had felt like a lifetime, and I remember sitting on the ground crying over his loss.
As an adult, I look back and wonder what it is that hurt so badly. What we had could hardly be construed as a serious relationship. We barely knew each other. Yet, I can still remember the hurt just as vividly as any other physical pain I’ve experienced. The emotional hurts people inflict on us have always hurt just as much as the physical ones. Now research is showing us why and how.
Columbia University recently published new research suggesting the emotional pain of a breakup may trigger the same parts of the brain as physical pain. In the study, 40 people who had been intensely rejected received brain scans while researchers showed them pictures of friends and then pictures of their exes. While they looked at pictures of their friends they were directed to think of a happy memory, but while they looked at their exes, they were directed to think about their breakup. Then the participants underwent the same scan while their forearms were exposed to heat, similar to the pain felt while holding a hot cup of coffee.
What they found was that the same area of the brain became active when the participants felt the physical pain as when they felt the emotional pain. In fact, they noted that these two types of pain shared more regions of the brain than previously thought. The researchers believe studies like these can help to devise ways to help people who have gone through a serious loss or rejection and help us to understand how that kind of emotional stress affects people physically.
As I read the study, my thoughts went to how very differently I treat my teen’s breakups from their physical pain. When someone comes in with a broken wrist or stitches, I immediately show my concern and compassion, doing everything I can to be able to help. I provide medicine to those who need it, and would never ignore an injured student’s cries for help. Yet, I have been guilty of treating my teen’s break-ups as something petty and inconsequential. I may ask them what happened and listen as they share their story. Yet, I am far more dismissive and likely to throw a meaningless platitude their way than I should be. This study speaks to how painful a broken relationship can be, and I should be just as eager to show the concern and compassion when they are dealing with a break-up as I am a broken bone.
Teaching students to deal with emotional pain is just as important as teaching them to deal with physical pain. One is not more serious than the other. We live in a sinful world and that brings with it a host of broken relationships. Our bodies are clearly wired to feel the pain of those broken relationships. God gave the answer to the sin and brokenness in our relationships when he sent Jesus to die on the cross. Finding healthy, God pleasing ways to comfort and reconcile the emotional pain of those broken relationships is just as important as dealing with physical pain.
Perhaps next time a junior high student talks with me about a break-up, I will be more aware of just how painful a broken heart can be.