The Science of a Broken Heart

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Most of us have been there— hearing the words, “It’s not you, it’s me,” or perhaps even worse: “Maybe we should just be friends.” Others have dealt with the death of a loved one. And while each ending of a relationship is unique (being dumped and mourning are drastically different experiences), one feeling is common: heartbreak. Unfortunately, no Band-Aid can heal this one.

Heartbreak Really Does Hurt — The Need-to-Know

Photo by Elaine Liu

Heartbreak is a term for crushing grief, anguish, and distress, often due to the pains and strains of love. The experience of heartbreak can be so powerful that some scientists suggest it feels the same as physical pain. In one study, people showed similar brain activity when they viewed a photo of a former love and when they felt extreme heat on their arm.

Other research shows Lady Montague might really have died from a broken heart: Early bereavement (the period of mourning after a death) is associated with increased blood pressure and heart rate, which can raise cardiovascular risk [1]. Another study of people who recently lost their spouse found the stress involved with mourning upped the risk of dying from a heart attack 20 to 35 percent. Looks like heartbreak can hurt the human heart in a serious way.

With A Little Help From My Friends —Your Action Plan

As studies confirm the biological basis to love, there may eventually be a treatment for heartbreak. Until then, if that that stupid jerk-face decides to call it quits (it’s their loss), delete their number to avoid drunken texts. Ending up on this site won’t mend any heart.

There are a few basic techniques for coping with the pain of a lost love. We reached out to Athena Staik, Ph.D., LMFT and Julie S. Lerner, Psy.D. for professional advice on healing a broken heart.

When a relationship ends, Athena Staik:

  • Understand the past. Recall your emotions and thoughts during the romance— from its early stages, to when things began to get rough, to when it ended. Think of other past relationships and look for patterns.
  • Prepare a self-care action plan. Lift yourself up emotionally, mentally, and physically. Exercise. Eat super healthfully. Cut out sweets and alcohol as much as possible.
  • Connect. Practice deep breathing, yoga, and meditation. Connect with people you trust.

When a loved one passes away, Julie S. Lerner:

  • Allow yourself to cry. “Being strong,” a phrase often heard during the grieving process, can mean letting go. Remember that no one ever died from crying.
  • Make space for the loss. Don’t fully immerse yourself in work or other activities. Loss is a part of life, so create time to grieve.
  • Self-soothe. Don’t feel guilty about enjoying life. Keep your house organized or buy yourself flowers. Take a bath or connect with pets!
  • Take it easy. Experiencing waves of exhaustion is normal. Try to get extra sleep, or talk to a doctor about taking sleep medication. Exercise is important, but don’t push yourself—long walks are good, too. 
About the Author
Laura Schwecherl
I'm the marketing director at Greatist, and when I'm not hanging at HQ with my best buds (aka co-workers...) you can find me training for...

Works Cited

  1. Haemodynamic changes during early bereavement: potential contribution to increased cardiovascular risk. Buckley T, Mihalidou AS, Bartrop R, et al. Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney, Australia. Heart, Lung and Circulation, 2011 Feb;20(2):91-8.

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