Most of us have had our hearts broken at some point and in some form or another, whether through the loss of a loved one or the ending of a romantic relationship. The emotional devastation that heartbreak leaves in its wake can be paralyzing, the pain all-encompassing, and the impact on our psychological and physical well-being crippling. In the most severe cases, a breakup can be a trigger for a clinical depressive episode.
So why is it that heartbreak is so agonizing?
ccording to psychologist Guy Winch, author of How to Fix a Broken Heart, the emotional aftermath of a breakup neurologically mirrors withdrawal from drugs such as heroin. Studies using functional MRIs, or brain scans, of the brokenhearted have shown the same areas of the brain being activated as those activated during drug withdrawal. So, if love is an addiction, heartbreak is a withdrawal. In this case, withdrawal from a person or relationship.
Much like a drug addict will go to almost any lengths to get a “fix,” and given the lapses in judgment that often accompany addiction, when withdrawing from a relationship you may find yourself doing things that you ordinarily would not do or displaying out-of-character behaviors. For example, if you find yourself groveling, frequently texting, cyberstalking or engaging in any other behaviors that you normally would not engage in, you are experiencing an unfortunate side effect of withdrawal. Continuing this behavior will only reinforce the cravings and delay recovery.
Reopening of attachment wounds
A broken heart is the reopening of old attachment wounds, which our psychological defenses have worked so hard to help us forget. Unfortunately, the body does not forget. For those with a history of relational trauma, such as abandonment by a parent or caregiver, the emotional and psychological impact of a breakup can trigger post-traumatic symptoms.
This may help explain why the ending of even the shortest of romantic flings can feel like the end of the world, or why we may feel we “cannot live” without the person. At one time, we literally could not survive without our primary attachment figure. Whether it is a parent abandoning you at seven or the ending of a two-year romantic relationship at thirty, the body does not know the difference.
Trauma specialist Bessel A. van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, writes:
“The imprint of past trauma does not consist only of distorted perceptions of information coming from the outside; the organism itself also has a problem knowing how to feel safe. The past is impressed not only on their minds, and in misinterpretations of innocuous events … but also on the very core of their beings: in the safety of their bodies.”
Our grieving is never solely for the person in the present. It is also the mourning of every loss experienced throughout our lives.
When “time” is not enough
Each individual’s recovery process will be dependent on a number of contributing factors. It is true that time heals all wounds; however, it is hard to take comfort in that sentiment while in the midst of heartache. Fortunately, there are things you can do to expedite the moving-on process. Below are some strategies to help you take control of the addictive, obsessional mind and move forward on the journey toward healing.
1. Honor your pain.
Romantic heartbreak often engenders strong and vivid grief reactions for many of the reasons described above. It is important to honor these emotional reactions and not discount or minimize them. Sadly, society does tend to minimize breakups, or at least not take them as seriously as other life-changing events such as a death or divorce, each recognized as a top life stressor. We have divorce support groups and “personal time off.” But what about the ending of a non-marital relationship? Does a piece of paper or lack thereof make the grief any less legitimate? The pain less agonizing? Winch calls for an open dialogue about the severity of heartbreak — not only among married partners, but for anyone experiencing the loss of a significant relationship — and the need to legitimize and understand it more than we currently do.
And as tempting as it may be to numb your pain, whether with alcohol, food or overworking, by allowing yourself to feel it now, you are helping your future self. By numbing, you are only delaying the healing process. Allow yourself to cry if you need to. Reaching out to friends and family can be helpful. So too is reaching out to a grief counselor or therapist, or joining a support group.
2. Let go of false hope.
Hope is a funny thing. It can be a life raft, something to cling to as we struggle to survive the tsunami of grief. False hope, on the other hand, can be the very thing that takes us down. False hope is as tempting as it is deceiving. Like a drug, it may feel good in the moment, but it will only delay the inevitable crash.
When we come to a place of acceptance and finally let go of our delusions — whether it is the delusion of reuniting with a partner or the delusion of a commitment where one does not, nor will ever, exist — is when the real healing begins.