Have you ever tried sleeping with a broken heart?

The social pain of a failed relationship or unrequited love is something that many people go through in their lifetimes. Human beings are social beings. We are wired to seek the company of others therefore it is expected that being rejected by someone can cause us a lot of pain. The title of my post are the lyrics from a song by Alicia Keys, and I chose that line because to me it suggests that having a broken heart is so painful that it could possibly prevent you from sleeping well. I find the lyrics to the song intriguing because it talks about the pain of heartbreak as if it is a physical pain and it makes me wonder: 1) is it possible to have an objective measure of social pain? If so, are the constructs of physical and social pain related to each other?

Some measures have been created to assess social pain. One example is Leary & Springer’s (2001) Hurt Feelings Scale which requires participants to report how much social pain they have experienced during a given period of time. The authours have shown that this measure of hurt feelings relates specifically to the experience of social exclusion and cannot be reduced to other negative emotions. Whether or not this and other measures actually are valid assessments of social pain is up for debate. I personally think that social pain is too subjective an experience for there to be a valid objective measure of it. But maybe I’m wrong.

Are the constructs of physical and social pain related to each other? Maybe. Eisenberger et al (2003) in their study of rejection concluded that social pain was analogous in its neurocognitive function to physical pain. Another study by DeWall et al (2009) supported these findings, and even went on to conclude that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) reduces behavioural and neural responses to social pain. This latter finding suggests that perhaps it is possible to sleep with a broken heart. Although I find it hard to believe that a drug created to alleviate physical pain can be effective in alleviating social pain, someone out there may find some comfort in knowing that heartache — just like any headache — can be soothed with a few doses of Tylenol.


Originally published at medium.com on January 28, 2015.

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