Research suggests a broken heart can feel like severe physical pain.
Ah, the broken heart. Some might say it's hyperbolic, but the pain of lost love isn't just emotional. It takes a real physical toll, too. In his forthcoming book, clinical psychologist Guy Winch, PhD, explores how we experience and recover from that kind of trauma. How to Fix a Broken Heart ($12, amazon.com) goes on sale just before Valentine's Day, which can be an especially excruciating time for the recently dumped, of course. So when an advance copy arrived at our office, I devoured it in search of insights and tips for how to heal and move on after a relationship ends. Here are seven of the most helpful lessons I learned.
Rejection hurts, literally
Winch details one study that examined people who had recently endured a difficult breakup. Researchers compared two fMRI scans: one that was taken while the subjects stared at photographs of their ex, and another when the subjects were exposed to heat that caused pain described as nearly "unbearable." The same areas of the brain became activated in both scenarios. In other words, the brain seemed to respond in a similar way to both intense emotional and physical pain.
Getting over heartbreak is similar to dealing with a drug addiction
Like a drug addict goes through withdrawal from cocaine or heroin, the brokenhearted become consumed by thoughts of the person they've lost, craving them and their attention. Symptoms of this withdrawal period, or “lack of contact,” include trouble focusing, disturbed sleep and appetite, anxiety, lethargy, irritability, crying spells, depression, and loneliness. Winch makes another connection, saying these feelings are ones that “no one but our heartbreaker can ease—just like cocaine and heroin do.”
Cyberstalking is a common, but unnecessary evil
Can’t hit “unfollow” quite yet? There’s a reason for that. When you’re checking social media for updates on an old flame, it’s important to acknowledge that you're playing with fire, says Winch. Letting go of someone is that much harder when you’re exposed to their social media presence. To avoid the risk of continuing or reactivating painful feelings, Winch advises eliminating any option of contact, and to go on a “blocking and deleting spree.”
A broken heart can actually cause heart failure
In rare cases, the emotional toll of a breakup can cause cardiac abnormalities known as broken heart syndrome. Chest pain, spasms, and elevated levels of the stress hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine are a few of the potential reactions.
You’re not "going nuts"
In the throes of heartbreak, it’s easy to think you are losing your mind. The post-breakup distress you're experiencing is only made worse by, as Winch writes, "the fact that all this goes virtually unrecognized if not entirely ignored by society at large." Everybody expects you to pull yourself together and get back out there, when all you want to do is curl up into a ball. Winch’s trick? “Reassuring ourselves that we are not going crazy and reminding ourselves that our behavior will stabilize once our emotional pain subsides,” he says, will remove what he calls the “am I going nuts?” layer.
Stop idealizing your ex
When everything has just gone so terribly wrong, it’s understandable to want to look back on all that went “right” during your relationship. But replaying a “highlight reel” of your life as a couple does more harm than good, and will make you feel even worse about the loss. And putting an ex up on a pedestal only “intensifies our cravings, which in turn reinforces our idealized perceptions,” and contributes to an on-going cycle with no end in sight.
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Don’t look for answers
Whether your ex sat you down for a heart-to-heart or left without a trace, finding the “why” isn’t necessarily productive. As Winch says, “pursuing a more complete answer is likely to make us emotionally vulnerable and open the door to feeling hurt, enraged, frustrated, or bewildered all over again.” It's also possible that you may never fully understand their motivation. (They might not understand it themselves.) So keep it simple, suggests Winch. Think of their decision like this: "They felt we were incompatible in some way."
It's far more productive—and healthier for your self-esteem—to use your own reasoning to come up with a plan for how you'll explain the breakup to yourself and others. As Winch says in the book, shoot for "a best guess that fits the facts, considers the personality and behavior of our ex, takes the context of the breakup and recent history into account, and most important, leaves our pride, dignity, and self-esteem intact."