I’ve had my heart broken. Not just my feelings hurt, but my heart broken—more than a handful of times. Whether it’s the end of a friendship or relationship or the death of a loved one, the intense emotional and physical pain, and the feelings associated with a broken heart, are both achingly familiar. So much so that when a friend tells me of their own heartache, I feel that pain all over again. It seems to be a part of me, stored away only to resurface in particularly difficult moments of loss and empathy.
I remember after the demise of a particularly difficult relationship, I made an appointment with a therapist. During our session, I expressed my sole goal: to move through my pain more quickly. I remember saying, “I don’t want this to take me down like it did the last time around.” She smiled a little before explaining, there is no set timetable for healing. At the time, this statement actually made me roll my eyes. Certainly, I thought, there is some way to expedite this process—I’m tough. We’ve all been broken hearted at one time or another. But I wasn’t accepting the logic at the time. So today, far removed from my last heartbreak, it seems like the perfect time to try to understand this universal phenomenon of a broken heart. This week I directed my research skills toward understanding this concept.
So here are the basics. We are biologically wired to seek out and maintain close relationships. In those relationships, our body surges with “happy” hormones, and we feel more clear, alert, and energized. Physically, our heart is pumping at a consistent speed, allowing the entire body to find equilibrium. Life feels much easier, because of the combination of these happy hormones and the body’s ability to find homeostasis.
So conversely, when we experience loss, our bodies downshift. The heart rate and breath capacity decrease—this is what results in that ache you feel deep behind the ribcage and the feeling like someone knocked the wind out of you. In addition, the digestive muscles contract, leaving that deep pit in your stomach. And all those happiness hormones? They’ve been traded in for an overabundance of stress hormones, which result in headaches and muscle stiffness.
And if you ever question if the pain you feel is real or just a manifestation of your misery, research by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman of the University of California reveals that the same area of the brain that lights up when we are hurt physically also lights up when we suffer loss. The brain (specifically the anterior cingulate cortex) overstimulates the vagus nerve—the nerve connecting the brain and the body. The brain is sending signals to the body that this pain, nausea, and muscle tightness in the chest is very much real. A broken heart, quite literally, hurts.
So the question remains, how do we heal a broken heart? It turns out my therapist was right; it takes time. Sadly, time is the only thing that will bring the body back into a more equalized state—eventually the body stops the surge of stress hormones and overstimulation of the vagus nerve. So there’s no rushing it. But, how you use this time is important. There are dozens of different techniques out there to help boost emotional well-being. But the one that made the most sense to me was to get your happy hormones up—even if it’s just temporarily. Focus on activities you love and people who make you happy. My coping mechanism of choice is to do something or learn something new. I’ve learned how to bake, make jewelry, and sew—all during times of heartache. And, in my experience, I think forcing myself to get up, get dressed, and go to a class, along with the actual benefit of learning something I’ve always wanted to learn, saved me, or, at least helped me pass the time until I found my new normal.
And, if that doesn’t work, I read a study during my research that suggested Tylenol helps reduce the physical and emotional pain associated with heartache. Who’d have thought?
But even heartache comes with a silver lining that’s worth mentioning. All our life experiences—even the painful ones—are the teachers of wisdom and empathy we didn’t have before. The rare person who has not experienced true loss—they are not as well prepared to deal with the losses that they will inevitably face. Our heartaches, our losses, they are what make us resilient. We can look back and say, I lived through that. I survived. I smiled again.
To live life to the fullest, it’s important not to let heartache, or even the fear of heartache, stop us from leaping into life’s uncertainties with resolve and optimism each and every day (or most days, anyway). There are things we cannot control—but we can get up and say, I’m going to have a good day today.