Relationships & Your Heart: Understanding The Pain Of Heartbreak

Relationships & Your Heart: Understanding The Pain Of Heartbreak

Heartbreak is not just the stuff of poets and balladeers. Associated feelings of grief, loss, loneliness, or even anger can take a toll on us physically and emotionally.

The side effects of nurturing a broken heart can have a negative impact on the heart health, not to mention creating potential for both physical and damage.

We’re continuing our celebration of American Heart Month by unwrapping how heartbreak affects our brain, and perhaps finding some solace in understanding the pain we might experience.

When Your Heart Hurts Your Brain

Have you ever felt like a breakup was literally painful?

It’s not just a metaphor. Research shows that our brain fires up the same regions during heartbreak as it does when we experience physical pain. It's as if our gray matter doesn't quite distinguish between a stubbed toe and a shattered heart.

While it seems extreme, our brains on heartbreak can trigger negative responses including depression, intense cravings or addictive behavior, and in the absolute worst scenarios self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

When heartache hits, it sparks changes in brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin, leading to physical symptoms that are all too real. 

Then there's cortisol, the stress hormone. High levels of cortisol can alter your thinking and make that pint of rocky road seem like a reasonable dinner choice. Your brain is doing its best to adapt to your new single status, but it can be a bit of a messy process.

“It’s all in your head” is a common mischaracterization of our response to love lost. The emotions may start there but the physical response can be widespread.

When your ex's memory pops up, it's not just “the blues” you're dealing with. Your body can throw a full-scale protest, complete with headaches, sleeplessness, and that infamous weight change (hello, ice cream craving at 2 a.m.). Emotional and physical pain are intertwined. Sticks and stones can break…wrong! Yes, words absolutely can hurt you.

The Heart of the Matter

Now, before you start worrying that a broken heart might literally strike you down – let's talk about broken heart syndrome. 

Yes, it’s a real thing, and it can be serious.

Broken heart syndrome can mimic a heart attack and, although rare, can be fatal. It's more common in women but tends to hit men harder. This syndrome can cause a weakening of the heart muscles as a response to severe physical or emotional stress. No need to panic though, it’s very uncommon and, in most cases, reversible. 

Mending the Heart and Mind

So, how to cope when your heart feels like it's gone through a shredder?

Recognize that what you're feeling is a normal, physiological response. You might be a mess, but you're most certainly not weak or being dramatic. You're human and your body is having valid reactions to a traumatic emotional event.

Be patient with yourself. Healing is not always a straight line from feeling bad to feeling better. You may experience emotional and physical peaks and valleys. Again, it’s a normal response.

Engage in self-care practices that resonate with you. Spend time around friends or family who genuinely support you. Take good care of you – recall your wellness priorities: nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise, and stress management. Make time for activities that you enjoy or give you space to heal emotionally. That could be time spent outdoors, a good book, creating art, doing some calming yoga sessions, breathing exercises or meditation.

Self care isn’t just a trendy hashtag. It’s an essential part of healing. Keep your social network close – friends and family can be the emotional scaffolding you need.

Lastly, if recovering from heartbreak begins to feel overwhelming, don’t discount the value of speaking with a professional. Seeking therapy is widely accepted as a smart, proactive self-help action. Just like your car needs new oil and a filter occasionally, speaking with a qualified professional can serve as a tune-up for your mental health.

An outside perspective can help you navigate your emotions and help you begin rebuilding after heartbreak.

Mending the Heart and Mind

Heartbreak may be gut-wrenching but it may also present you with an opportunity for growth. We’ve discussed many of the negative outcomes potentially triggered by heartbreak, but a deep emotional experience that can also trigger self reflection and the adoption of new healthy habits, new positive surroundings, a new perspective and, eventually, new love. 

Understanding the common physical and emotional responses to heartbreak may allow you to better navigate the choppy waters of a breakup. And hey, while you're riding the heartbreak wave, don't forget – this too shall pass.

It might pass like a kidney stone, but it'll pass.

So there you have it, a little science, a bit of wisdom, and a dash of hope for anyone navigating the tumultuous seas of a broken heart. It's a journey, and while there's no express lane out of Heartbreak Hotel, understanding the roadmap of pain can at least assure you that your feelings are valid, and with time, you'll find your way back to wholehearted living.

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