The Science of Heartbreak

Photo by  Max Guillaud  on  Unsplash

Some loves last a lifetime, others as long as they were meant to.

Sooner or later someone will probably break your heart. They say you cannot protect yourself from pain without protecting yourself from happiness at the same time. Where there is love, there is the risk of a heartbreak. Have you ever wondered why heartbreak is so universal, and so exquisitely painful?

The curious thing about a heartbreak is not really the intensity of it, but mostly the duration. You can see strong, independent and disciplined adults suffering for a period of time that seems really inappropriately long. We understand people get hurt but we expect them to recover faster than most of them actually do.

Science provides us with a simple way to find out what is actually happening in the brains of people who are in love, as well as those who have been recently through a breakup. A process known as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) can create a detailed, accurate map of the brain’s more than 100 billion individual cells. Tracking the tiny bits of iron in each blood cell can determine which areas of the brain have more blood flow and, hence, must be working harder.

Brain mapping studies show that love for our brains is just like any other kind of addiction. That is, the brain reacts extremely similarly to the loss of love as it does to withdrawals from a drug. Passionate cravings, obsessive thoughts, separation anxiety, physical and emotional dependency, reality distortion, and a loss of self-control are hallmarks of withdrawal from both substances and love. Here is more about the connection between romantic love and addiction from an article published by Frontiers in Psychology.

As in the case of any kind of addiction — it’s hard to admit you really have a problem. You are shattered. You try to play strong but sometimes your heart screams, your stomach hurts, your face crumbles and you cannot bear it. You find yourself after a year or two still rewinding the same old tape and being unable to do the wisely called ‘letting go’ thing.

Emotional Pain = Physical Pain

Published in 2010 a study conducted at the University of Kentucky, College of Arts and Sciences, examined the connection and possible overlap between physical pain and emotional pain. This particular study had 62 participants who were filling out the “Hurt Feeling Scale”, a self-assessment tool which measures an individual’s reaction to distressing experiences. In addition, the study was using doses of the active ingredient found in Tylenol, acetaminophen, as part of its protocol.

The researchers separated the study volunteers into two groups. The first group, after filling out their self-assessment tools, was given 1,000 mg of the acetaminophen. This is a dosage equal to one Extra Strength Tylenol. The control group however, received a placebo instead of the acetaminophen.

The finding from this study showed that the control group without the acetaminophen, after three weeks, did not experience any change in the amount of intensity of “hurt” feeling during the three week period. However, the group that did receive the active ingredient reported a noticeable reduction of “hurt” feelings on a regular, day-today basis.

Another study, in 2011 from the University of Michigan went even further. During MRI scans, the study subjects were shown photographs of their former romantic partners. They were asked to think about and remember the pain of their breakup. While being scanned, the participants wore an arm monitor that created a painful sensation similar to hot coffee being spilled on their skin.

Now here is the blast of this research — the outcomes demonstrated that the area of the brain where emotional discomfort is felt is the same location that physical pain is experienced. This would explain why the group that was taking the acetaminophen, while having no physical pain, reported less feelings of hurt and rejection than the group that was not taking the acetaminophen but rather a placebo substance.

Geoff MacDonald, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who is an expert in romantic relationships, and a co-author of the Kentucky study, states that our brain pain centres cannot tell the difference between physical pain and emotional pain. He goes on to say an important message from the research is that like physical pain, emotional pain is serious business:

It is easy to put aside touchy-feely stuff as less important, but it can literally kill people because human beings depend on social connection for survival.

His exhaustive paper can be found here.

No Answer May Be the Ultimate Answer

Apart from hurting, what you find yourself in desperate need of are explanations. You are looking for an answer why your relationship broke and you easily become obsessed with figuring out what went wrong. You spend endless hours analysing every minute of your time together searching for a clue that might simply not exist. You keep drawing circles.

Your natural instincts push you to solve the mystery but what they actually do is keep you drowning. You have to realise that there is no satisfactory explanation for a breakup. Please just stick to the one you have or make up one yourself and keep going. The only thing that matters is that you accept it is over. Otherwise your soul will feed on the hope that is left and prevent you from any actual progress.

The easiest way to solve a mystery is to decide that there is no mystery to solve.

We always idealise the person who broke our heart. We start thinking they were perfect. I’ll tell you something — they were not. And neither was your relationship. Please write down a list of all the things that make them actually wrong for you. An exhaustive list.

Your ex-partner was not a miracle. Neither an adventure. They were not a fine and precious thing. They were just human.

How to Deal With Heartbreak

When somebody leaves, there are holes in our lives that we need to fill, as soon as possible. Make sure you remake your social life if needed, take care of the empty spaces in your time and space, fill even the white square on the wall where you used to have your happy pictures.

Facing its truth, you’re only left with one of two reactions: you breathe or you break. However, what I am sure of, is that this reaction is a choice. To successfully make it through heartbreak, treat it as you would any other addiction.

Go Cold Turkey

Or what is often known as No Contact. Delete your ex from your contact list and social media. Let mutual friends know that you have no interest in hearing about that person. Hide all mementos from the relationship in a box at the back of your closet. Just like a single drink can trigger an alcoholic relapse, even a small reminder of your ex can send you spiraling into fresh anguish and emotional extremes. Later, when you have both fully accepted and integrated the breakup, you might be able to be friends. For now, it is impossible, so put the idea out of your mind.

Find a Mantra

Create a short saying that affirms your value and self-esteem, while stating your intentions for the future. For example, you might say, “I love having time for my hobbies and I finally don’t need to deal with an emotional rollercoaster. It takes time, but I’ll be all right.” Repeat it several times a day — in front of the mirror, in the shower, or while commuting to work.

Focus on Positivity

No matter how sad, angry, or anxious you feel, find a way to absorb positive energy. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Make a list of the people who love you unconditionally. Spend time with your happiest friend. Positive emotions, no matter how fleeting, can dampen your negativity and help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s the essence of life: it is really just a one-direction road. The only thing you can do is keep going forward.

Stay busy

Even if you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and at the end of your rope, get dressed and go somewhere. Take a walk through the park or hit the gym. Exercise creates natural feel-good chemicals in your brain, which can help minimize the neurochemical effects of the breakup. Sunlight regulates your biological rhythms, helping you to sleep better at night, and also improves mood. Try new things, especially those that increase your heart rate and give you a mild adrenaline rush. The powerful brain chemicals released during thrilling activities can overwhelm the painful withdrawals.

Get help

Like any other addictive withdrawal, heartbreak is best managed with outside support. Join a support group. See a therapist. Talk things over with a friend who has been through it. Whatever you choose, just keep talking. Venting your feelings to a sympathetic ear can help you work through them, and you will receive helpful suggestions for managing the emotions that can seem truly overwhelming.

Reassure Yourself

To fix your heart you need to reassure yourself of your own identity, you need to re-establish the sense of who you are and where are you going. And while doing so, don’t let your ex-partner be the protagonist in your life, because it is the highest time for them to become barely an extra.

Don’t Get Desperate

If you don’t feel like using Tinder or dating somebody new right now, simply do not. You don’t need to find a replacement immediately. Being by yourself is a great thing. You can make wonderful use out of your loneliness. There are activities, such as writing, creating, painting, or simply thinking, that all require you to be alone — and to feel comfortable while being so.

I learned who I was when nobody was around. Some nights I’d lay in bed with my book and think of how nice it would be to have my ex there. Looking back, I realize how nice it was that I didn’t.

Rather than view your temporal loneliness as a wound that requires the immediate cure of someone’s attention, try to fill it with action. With books, art, research, writing. Whatever moves you. Instead of getting sad and thinking that you will end up alone, having just a lot of cats and a vegetable garden, try to embrace your solitude and simply get to work.

The only person you are guaranteed to spend the rest of your life with is you. Make sure you’re in great company.

The Science of Heartbreak

None of us are immune to heartbreak - this is a fact. So if you know someone who has a broken heart, be compassionate and have patience, because it might take longer than you think it should for them to move on.

And if you are hurting, remember that it is a fight, but you have the right weapons and you have the strength and I am telling you for sure, you too, will heal. Maybe the best treatment for the lack of love is simply more love. In the end, don’t you treat hangovers with beer?

It hurts like hell. And then one day, it doesn’t.