When love and homesickness hurt – literally

by Marc Wilson / 10 March, 2018

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The pain of separation is entirely emotional, but can be experienced physically. 

The American First Lady, Melania Trump, had been expected to join her husband at the World Economic Forum in Davos recently. Less than a week out, however, it was announced that she would no longer do so, because of what CNN reported as “scheduling and logistical issues”. I’m guessing she must have had one of those flexi-fares, or it would have been rather an expensive decision.

Assuming the cancellation wasn’t, as has been speculated, motivated by domestic discord associated with reports of an extra-marital affair before Donald Trump won the presidency, I wonder if she went along to the airport to see the Donald off. Was there a tear in her eye as he headed away to hobnob with Angela and Emmanuel?

If you’ve ever farewelled loved ones, you’ll be familiar with the almost-physical pain that goes with “missing” them. You might have started missing them even before they left.

To oversimplify: think of pain as having two main parts – the physical “ow!” sensation and the non-sensory feelings that go along with being in emotional distress. Stubbing your toe has both sensory and affective (mood-related) parts, whereas saying goodbye to your sweetheart at the airport has more of the affective part but less of the sensory.

I’ve written previously about the overlap between these pain systems. The brain regions that light up when you bang your toe also shine bright when we strap you in the brain scanner and make you feel left out. We also know that some of this emotional pain can be treated with paracetamol – because the same brain regions are involved. Indeed, in a short article, “Why love literally hurts”, in the Association for Psychological Science magazine Observer in 2013, Eric Jaffe noted that humans are not alone in this separation-related distress, and an analgesic effect has been seen in animals since at least the 1970s: puppies given painkillers are less intensely distressed when their parents aren’t nearby, for example.

Writer Eric Jaffe.

That said, don’t expect sensory and emotional pain to die at the same pace. Your toe will stop throbbing, and when a loved one leaves, the emotional pain will ease, too, but often more slowly than a physical bruise. Until you’re reunited, that is. What if the separation is permanent? When actress Debbie Reynolds died, a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, she was said by some to have “died of a broken heart”, and we see occasional stories of longtime romantic partners who die within hours of each other. These examples, and medical case studies, have given rise to a diagnosis of stress cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome”.

Might homesickness be a bit similar? Even if you’ve been looking forward to visiting a new place, or heading somewhere new to live or work, one of the most common initial experiences is the feeling of sadness, and wistfulness for home, family and friends.

It’s been speculated that homesickness is an evolved response to being away from the protection of our social group. Many species have adapted defensively or offensively, but humans don’t have claws or shells; we rely on strength of numbers to fight off threats or look after us when we’re injured or sick. Being in an unfamiliar environment, without those people we’re used to having around us, is like a warning siren to say that we’re out of the circle of light thrown by the campfire.

A similar theory has been advanced for why we often can’t sleep for the first few nights away from home. The older, less-developed, parts of our brains are waking us up to make sure nobody is making off with our kinfolk or livestock. In the spirit of self-disclosure let me say that if I want a good night’s sleep when I’m away from my wife, I have to put a suitcase or bunch of pillows on the bed next to me. I hope I’m not alone.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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