When Your Heart Is Breaking

Heartbreak is more than a metaphor.

Posted Feb 15, 2017

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

When you lose someone you love—grieving their death or the end of a relationship—it can feel like your heart is breaking.  In 2004, 45-year-old Karen Unruh-Wahrer died after viewing the body of her son, Army Spec. Robert Unruh, killed in an ambush in Iraq.  One of her colleagues concluded:  “She died of a broken heart.” 

Research suggests that the expression “heartbroken” is more than a metaphor.  In extreme cases, news of a sudden loss can result in takotsubo syndrome or cardiomyopathy, believed to be the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones caused by an intensely emotional event.  Despite no evidence of blocked heart arteries, the left ventricle of the heart temporarily enlarges while the rest of the heart continues to function, sometimes with more forceful contractions.  Without treatment, the heart can fail to pump sufficient blood, leading to death.  While nearly 95 percent of patients experience complete recovery within 4 to 8 weeks, complications can occur and symptoms can recur.

The feeling that your heart is aching physically when you experience emotional distress might be due to common physiological mechanisms shared by social and physical pain.  Studies using functional MRI have demonstrated that areas of the brain involved in the sensory components of physical pain become active when people think about the emotional pain of the unwanted end of a romantic relationship.  Researchers conclude that a common somatosensory representation in the brain underlies emotional loss and physical pain. 

When your heart is breaking, you might experience physical pain along with the cognitive and emotional difficulties that accompany loss.  Along with sadness, longing, anxiety, resentment, helplessness, or hopelessness, you might lose confidence in yourself and begin questioning your judgments and behaviors.  You might not feel the happiness you once did in things you had enjoyed.  You might also experience physical changes such as insomnia, fatigue, muscle pain, and heartache.

  • Knowledge is power.  Understanding the connection between emotional and physical distress can help guide your efforts to survive the transition and thrive in your life after loss.
  • Given the connection between emotional and physical distress, it is useful to get physical to begin healing.  Get physical with exercise, dance, lawn care, or other chores you’ve been postponing.
  • Get organized.  Now is a good time to catch up on cleaning, or organizing clutter.  Getting rid of what is no longer useful is one way to make room for welcoming what is new and more constructive.
  • Embrace life.  Try gardening or get an indoor plant.  Pay extra attention to your pet or volunteer at a shelter.
  • Don’t try to suppress your thoughts, feelings, and memories.  Research shows a rebound effect; the harder you try to suppress thoughts, the more they flood your mind.
  • Take time to acknowledge and release your feelings.  Relief can come from indulgence if you remain open to replacing the negative emotions with more positive ones.
  • Listen to sad songs to purge your sorrow and to remember that others have been through similar experiences.
  • Then move on to more inspirational music to energize the rebuilding of your life after loss.
  • After a breakup, don’t stalk your ex on social media.  Spend time focusing on yourself.
  • First, find pleasure in small things, and then gradually find joy in more meaningful ways.
  • Rediscover who you were before the loss.  Nostalgia has been shown to reduce loneliness, enhance self-continuity, and enrich social connectedness.
  • Remember that the relationship you enjoyed will always be part of who you are.  You can keep the one you love alive in your memories and in your respect for qualities you admired in them.  As Ray Price sang:  “When my heart aches, I read all your letters.  It helps keep your memory alive.  They say I can’t last if I live in the past, but for me, it’s the way to survive.”
  • Find strength by deciding to be a survivor, not a victim.
  • Don’t define yourself by one relationship.
  • Reach out to others.  Giving to others and engaging in acts of kindness elevates mood and restores the sense of your importance to others. 
  • Remember you are not alone.


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