The Love Blog! The Therapeutic Qualities of Love?

Areas of the brain activated when experiencing love. Image courtesy of scientific america.
Areas of the brain activated when experiencing love. Image courtesy of scientific america.

Much has been written and studied about the positive benefits of love. Specifically, the act and expression of love stimulates the limbic region of the brain responsible for emotion, attention, and motivation, the autonomic nervous system which serves in stress reduction, and positive hormonal stimulation such as oxytocin which aids in social bonding.  On the other hand, experiencing social pains such as a divorce or a loss of a loved one can cause stress-induced health problems sometimes as drastic as mimicking a heart attack, without evidence of blocked arteries, also known as “broken-heart syndrome.”   Love is indeed a necessary and powerful force for us all.

In 2010, a very small study (15 participants total) came out in the journal, PLoS ONE, that sparked my interest in this topic.  The study entitled, “Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems” by Younger et al., induced 15 second heat blocks of moderate and high levels of pain while participants viewed pictures of their romantic partner in the initial period of falling in love and of an equally attractive acquaintance. Participants also performed a distraction technique involving a word-association task.  The researchers found that when viewing pictures of romantic partners the rewards systems of the brain were activated and reported less pain than viewing pictures of acquaintances. Distraction techniques also alleviated pain but did not excite similar reward processing areas.  Criticisms were waged that the study was too small to account for gender differences, participants had prior knowledge of the study, and simulated pain cannot be compared to real life chronic pain. Still, it’s hard to deny the benefits of social support and love when experiencing pain and illness and I wanted to know if any additional findings have been made on the subject.  What I found was comforting and worthy of discussion.

Ink on fabric. Portion of a larger piece entitled "The Broken Vena Cava" Artwork done by the author of this blog
Ink on fabric. Portion of a larger piece entitled “The Broken Vena Cava” Artwork done by the author of this blog

The scholar Naomi I. Eisenberger has authored, coauthored, and performed many studies involving this area of research.  In Eisenberger et al., 2011, “Attachment Figures Activate a Safety Signal-related Neural Region and Reduce Pain Experience” female volunteers in long-term romantic relationships completed functional MRI (fMRI) scans. Similar to the Younger et al. study, participants received both moderate and high painful heat applications while viewing images of their partner and of a stranger.  Portions of the brain responsible for safety signaling, assuaging fear, and diminishing pain were activated when respondents viewed pictures of their loved one. Likewise, the regions of the brain that are associated with the noxious experience of pain were less stimulated. Participants also verbally rated their pain as lower upon seeing pictures of their significant other.  Moreover, the longer the participant was involved in a romantic relationship, the greater the safety signaling region of the brain was activated.  Eisenberger and her colleague, Tristen K. Inagaki, 2012, also tested whether giving support to a love one in pain could be beneficial.  Published in the journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, the article “Neural Correlates of Giving Support to a Loved One” details that the ventral striatum of the brain which is responsible for feelings of reward was activated in the female respondents who were providing a supportive touch to their partner in pain.  This area of the brain was more active when their love one was in pain than when they were not suggesting to the authors that helping a loved one is more rewarding than mere physical contact.  Thus, the act of giving support to a love one in pain has benefits in itself.  One additional study that Eisenberger authored is of interest here.  In her 2012 article, “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones: A Neural Perspective on the Similarities Between Social and Physical Pain,” Eisenberger establishes a link between physical and social pain. Particularly, physical and social pain depends on the biologically occurring opioid system that regulates pain and the same regions of the brain that are associated with the noxious experience of physical pain.  Eisenberger reports that social support not only reduces social pain such as rejection or hurt feelings but also reduces physical pain as well.  Corroborating Eisenberger’s work, a study came out in 2011 from the University of Michigan stating that there is a neural intersection between the parts of the brain that are activated when a person experiences a painful sensation and when an individual experiences social rejection particularly, a broken heart.

Love is such a prevailing emotion that studies show that when your loved one sees you in pain they too experience pain, activating similar regions in the brain to the actual encounter itself.  Beeney et al., 2011, ran an experiment in which participants watched their friends be rejected and monitored their brain response on an fMRI.  They found that the participants’ brain reacted to the rejection as if it experienced the actual act. Intriguingly, portions of the brain responsible for the actual experiences of physical pain were also stimulated. The closer the friendship relationship, the greater the empathetic responses suggesting that empathy for a love one is a fluid emotion.  Their findings are summarized in an article entitled “I Feel Your Pain: Emotional Closeness Modulates Neural Responses to Empathically Experienced Rejection” in Psychology Press.  A separate study that involved participants watching others experience both physical and emotional pain came to a strikingly similar conclusion: that the neural processes by which we understand others’ physical and emotional distress stem from the shared brain regions as first person encounters (Bruneau et al., 2011).

Science is revealing to us that images of our loved ones have analgesic effects, providing touch to a love one in pain activates the rewards-center in our brains, and the social bond is such an influential part of human life that our capacity to empathize triggers the same neural areas as the actual painful experience. There is further evidence to suggest that love does play a therapeutic role in modulating the pain experience.  In a randomized control study of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, spouses and couples who participated in skills and coping training to better assist and understand their partner’s osteoarthritis, dramatically improved health outcomes in the spouse coping with osteoarthritis (Keefe et al. 2004). Coronary-bypass patients whose spouses visited them more often in the hospital not only took less pain medication than those whose spouses did not but also recovered more quickly (Kulik & Mahler, 1989).  Likewise, women who had supportive people around her during childbirth were less likely to use pain medication than women who did not experience that support (Kennell et al., 1991).  If love helps mitigate the pain experience and expression in the brain, the tragedy of it all is that those that suffer from chronic disease often report feelings of isolation or being misunderstood.  More studies will have to be performed to analyze if the analgesic effect of love is just as robust on chronic sufferers of pain, as well as, the effects of long-term caregiving on our ability to empathize with our loved ones.  However, the osteoarthritis study would suggest that both patients and supportive loved ones can harness this sympathetic bond devising and employing skills in a manner that makes the person experiencing pain feel supported, thus, lessening some of the effects of frequent pain.  Obliviously, you can’t love your way out of chronic pain, illness, or injury but social and emotional support plays a role in acceptance, coping, and living a meaningful life.  It is easy to think when suffering something as personal as pain that no one understands what we are going through, and to a large extent, that is true.  It is also true that our loved ones are there—feeling our pain too.


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