Relationships

Why Heartbreak Is A Complex Psychological Injury That Should Be Taken Seriously

By Rebecca Hope··  8 min read
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Heartbreak – isn’t it fascinating?

No matter what age heartbreak occurs – whether it’s during high school, or in your 20s, 30s, or 50s – that initial shock, disbelief, and haze of unreality remains the same. Most worryingly, heartbreak can take someone who has no psychological problems and render them non-functional, and even a little bit crazy, instantly.

Many heartbroken people are simply told “you’ll be fine” and to “get over it” when facing a breakup. Although this is true – you will be fine – it’s vital that your support systems show compassion, as studies show they’re essential to the heartbroken person’s recovery.

How Loved Ones Sometimes Fail the Heartbroken

Support from friends and loved ones play a crucial role in recovery from loss. When we lose a relative, we receive an incredible amount of concern from those closest to us which validates the emotional pain we’re experiencing. Friends and family offer a shoulder to cry on, as well as an abundance of compassion and empathy. Plus, our workplaces usually grant us time off to grieve and heal.

What determines other people’s compassion when we’re heartbroken is how much they believe we should feel.

However, when we experience a romantic heartbreak, the same cannot be said. What determines other people’s compassion for us when we’re heartbroken isn’t how much emotional pain we’re experiencing, but how much they believe we should feel. This can cause our support systems to lose patience when we aren’t moving on as quickly as they expect us to. In turn, we internalize the impatience of our loved ones and lose self-compassion. As a result, we’re left with a decrease in social support and an increase in self-criticism, making it so much harder to heal and recover.

One of the key reasons society believes romantic heartbreak is less significant than other kinds of grief is that many don’t fully understand how our mind, body, and brain are impacted when heartbroken. Understanding exactly what happens is a crucial step to healing and recovering from heartbreak. Thankfully, scientists have spent decades studying this phenomenon so we now have the tools to overcome it.

The Heartbroken Experience “Unbearable” Pain Levels

Heartbreak invades our thoughts, focus, and awareness. The pain is so paralyzing and inescapable that the tightness in our chest often feels as though our heart is quite literally broken. 

In 2011, Ethan Kross conducted research at the University of Michigan to study the bodily component of social rejection. Kross placed volunteers who had recently been through a painful romantic breakup in an fMRI machine (scanners that highlight areas of the brain that are experiencing an increase in blood flow, suggesting increased activity). The volunteers were told to stare at a photograph of the person who broke their heart and relive the breakup in their minds while the fMRI machine recorded the results.

Later, the participants were placed in the fMRI machine again. This time, a Neurosensory Analyzer (a machine that transfers heat to the skin of the forearm) was used to apply increasing levels of heat to the volunteers’ forearms for seven-second intervals. This machine had a ten-point scale, where ten was “unbearable” pain. The participants reported the pain to be an eight on this scale, just a few notches below “unbearable.” 

The scientists compared the two brain scans and found the exact same areas of the brain were activated when the volunteers relived their heartbreak and when they experienced the highest degree of physical pain – just below “unbearable.” In the study, the participants were only exposed to near “unbearable” pain levels for a few seconds. A heartbroken person typically feels sharp emotional pain for days, weeks, or even months.

Heartbreak and nearly unbearable physical pain activate the same brain areas.

Think back to a time when you had a headache or stomachache, but you still went to work or school anyway. How much harder did you find it to concentrate or complete tasks? Now imagine trying to function at college or work while experiencing near “unbearable” levels of pain. It’s interesting that we would never expect a person to function normally in work or social settings if they were experiencing near “unbearable” physical pain throughout the day, yet we expect heartbroken individuals to power through and continue normally as if they are unaffected. 

Plus, if emotional pain weren’t enough, the heartbroken endure a host of withdrawal symptoms that only further wreak havoc on their body.

The Physical Symptoms of Heartbreak

Being in love bathes the brain in bliss. It’s soaking up all the happy hormones – dopamine and oxytocin – and enjoying them in abundance. When you’re rejected by your beloved, the happy hormone supply takes a steep dive and releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline instead. Emotional threats are much like physical ones and can stir up the fight or flight response. This is intended to protect us from harm, but instead of helping, it simply adds physical pain to the emotional pain. 

When there’s too much cortisol, the brain sends blood to the major muscle groups. As a result, muscles tense up ready to respond to the threat. However, as there’s no real threat or need for a physical response, you don’t use this energy, so your muscles swell and become sore. Cortisol shooting into your system diverts blood away from your digestive tract, causing stomach issues such as cramps, diarrhea, and appetite loss. 

Emotional threats are much like physical ones, and can stir up the fight or flight response.

As you can imagine, when stress hormones are heightened, the immune system will struggle too, increasing your vulnerability to illness. Yep, the break-up cold is a real thing. Plus, due to the steady release of cortisol, you may start to notice problems with your sleep, which in turn affects your capacity to make sound decisions.

How the Heartbroken Feed Their Addiction

By now we understand that the brain reacts to heartbreak similarly to a drug addict withdrawing from cocaine or heroin. In a paper published by the Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers found that the brain regions associated with cravings and emotional regulation lit up when heartbroken participants were shown pictures of their ex. Many of the activated regions that lit up are necessary for romantic love, but also for cocaine addiction.

Following a breakup, it’s common for the heartbroken person to revisit old memories, combing through each and every moment to work out what went wrong. This is essentially a heartbroken person’s methadone. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but it sustains them. The difference between a drug addict and a heartbroken person is a drug addict knows when they’re shooting up, but the heartbroken often don’t realize what they’re doing. Unfortunately, this only prolongs their pain and hinders their recovery.

Heartbreak Isn’t Time-Specific

When going through a breakup, people often ask “How long were you together?” As if the pain you feel directly correlates to how long you spent with someone. But it isn’t about the time, it’s about the person – and the expectations you set.

It’s this that makes heartbreak so different from other kinds of grief, as even a brief, superficial connection can cause complete devastation. Dr. Guy Winch is a licensed psychologist and author of the book How To Fix A Broken Heart. Dr. Winch tells the story of Lauren, a young woman who had recently re-entered the dating world. Although she kept her hopes moderate and set low expectations before she went on her first date, she didn’t keep them low after it. 

What makes heartbreak different from other kinds of grief is that even a brief, superficial connection can cause complete devastation.

The date exceeded her expectations and Lauren quickly became excited. Her expectations soared, which only set her up for an even greater blow when her date told her he didn’t want to see her again. Lauren ended up housebound for three days, not just because of the pain she felt, but also the shame. She thought her friends and therapist would find her heartbreak so ridiculous that she was afraid to reach out to her support systems – the very thing that would provide her comfort. 

Denying herself the emotional validation, support, and empathy significantly prolonged her suffering, which is why it’s essential we, as a society, don’t trivialize heartbreak. It’s important we see it for what it really is – “a complex psychological injury.”

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, heartbreak doesn’t care if you’ve only been dating someone for a couple of weeks or if it’s been years. It can happen to anyone, no matter the timespan. It’s a form of grief that requires care and support, just like any other form of grief. Despite society’s lack of empathy for the heartbroken, it’s important we don’t internalize these standards ourselves. So, when you’re heartbroken, don’t deny yourself the very compassion you need, and don’t become self-critical. Give your heart the crucial support it needs to heal. But remember, if a month passes and you don’t feel any better, seek professional help. There may be something stopping you from healing and recovering.

If your friend or loved one is heartbroken, be patient. They’re probably going to take longer to heal than you think, and studies prove that support systems are essential to their recovery.

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