Suffering from a broken heart and not sure how to cope? When a relationship ends - it hurts. In fact, scientific research shows a broken heart can cause physical pain, not just emotional trauma. A 2011 study found that people had similar brain activity when they viewed a photo of a former partner to when they sustained a burn to the arm.
Heartbreak is something that many of us go through at some point in our lives, but this makes it no less distressing. So if you're reeling from a relationship break down and don't know where to turn, rest assured that you are not alone.
But why does heart break hurt so bad and is it possible to speed up the recovery process? We spoke to both Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist and Lucy Beresford, psychotherapist, TEDx speaker, Agony Aunt for ITV’s This Morning and author of Happy Relationships for the psychology behind heartbreak and the 12 key steps to recovery:
Why do we experience heartbreak?
Heartbreak most often occurs when a relationship ends, but it doesn't matter whether you initiated the break-up or were callously cast aside - either way, it can be both mentally and physically painful.
'Whether you are the person ending the relationship or not, the event usually has a psychological as well as sometimes a physical impact,' says Beresford. 'The different stages to heartbreak are thought to be similar to those found in grief after bereavement – which makes sense, given that heartbreak is about an ending.'
'Heartbreak is not actually a medical diagnosis but it refers to the intense emotional and often physical reaction one feels following loss, accompanied by a deep longing for whatever it is that has been lost,' adds Dr Bijlani. 'The loss could be due to bereavement, loss of a relationship such as following divorce or separation, or even to disappointment following inability to achieve something you may have aspired to and worked very hard for.'
The 6 stages of heartbreak
Heartbreak is a deeply personal process, but there tends to be six key stages on the road to recovery. 'The different stages of heartbreak are similar to those of grief and include denial, anger, depression and eventually acceptance,' says Dr Bijlani.
Beresford agrees, outlining the six different stages of heartbreak as the following:
Pain: after the numbness of the shock wears off, you might have actual pain around the heart or solar plexus area.
Anger: this is where the pain gets turned outwards and you can find yourself angry at everyone and everything: your loved one, your friends, the world, your faith if you have one, even the parking ticket attendant. The anger stems from your life not progressing as you wanted it to and is an appropriate stage of heartbreak. If you do find yourself taking it out on the poor parking ticket attendant, have a few sentences up your sleeve in apology… most people will understand.
Depression: turning in on yourself and withdrawing from the world for a while is an important part of the healing process. It’s about licking your wounds, sometimes with the support of a confidante or counsellor, and preparing yourself for the next stage – even though at the time you might feel like there will never be a next stage. This sadness can be all-consuming, but for a while, that’s okay.
Renewal: this is where you start to make tentative steps back into the outside world, the sadness reduces and you start to feel less preoccupied by your previous relationship.
Rebuilding: this stage sees you acquire the strength to take on tasks you once did as a couple, or attend to practical matters that perhaps your partner took care of. You might also start socialising again gently, with people who want the best for you. This is the time to start processing the relationship, perhaps acknowledging what went wrong, or what you might have missed, as well as examining your part in the break-up.
Acceptance: this is where the break-up is now part of your history but something you can accept. In fact you might be heading towards believing it was the best thing that happened because of the newer you that you are now. You can envisage finding someone new, rather than holding yourself back.
The science behind heartbreak
Studies show that your brain registers and processes the emotional pain of heartbreak in the same way as it does physical pain. That's why it hurts so much. Hormones also have a huge part to play. When we're in love, we have elevated levels of dopamine and oxytocin - both of which make us feel good. When heartbreak happens, we not only suffer withdrawal symptoms, but these chemicals are replaced with the stress hormone cortisol. Over time this can contribute to anxiety and nausea.
'Physical symptoms of withdrawal might be similar to those of drug withdrawal,' explains Dr Bijlani. 'If the symptoms don’t improve with time and remain untreated, this can lead to further adverse health consequences.'
'Some people speak of actual physical pain, in the heart (hence the term) or in their gut, while others suffer disturbed sleep or eating patterns,' says Beresford. 'There were even cases in Japan in the 1990s of people being rushed to hospital with symptoms similar to a heart attack, having experienced changes in heart functioning following a relationship break-up.'
'This is why it is very important to take heartbreak seriously, and to watch what kind of coping mechanisms are used,' she warns. 'Some people stop eating out of sadness or shame, others use drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.'
12 steps to mend your broken heart
There's no guaranteed cure for heartbreak, but there are a few steps you can take to ease the pain. Different people recover in different ways, but the one medication that everyone needs is time. In the meantime, the following 12 heartbreak recovery tips may help:
1. Acknowledge your feelings
If you've recently been rejected your ego will take a hit, so your first instinct may be to put a brave face on it and pretend you are fine. But failure to acknowledge your true feelings can prolong or even exacerbate your pain. If your heart has been broken, admit it and face your heartbreak head on. 'I would suggest the first step would be to allow yourself time to wallow and experience sadness, unhappiness and grief,' says Dr Bijlani. 'It's far better to acknowledge how you’re feeling rather than bottle it up and pretend, to yourself as well as the world, that everything is fine,' adds Beresford.
3. Write it down
If you aren't a natural sharer or you're not ready to talk, try putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper. 'Some people find it helpful to write down their feelings,' says Dr Bijlani. Putting pen to paper can clarify your thoughts, and if your mind is muddled and confused by your recent heartache, journaling also frees up mental space. What's more, creating a record of your feelings can help you look back and see how far you've come.
3. Think logically
When you go through a breakup it's common to automatically assume you were rejected because you are in some way not worthy of your exes affections. Many people suddenly assume they must not be pretty enough, or clever enough, or don't drive the right car, and start to doubt themselves. But if your ex liked you enough to date you in the first place, why would they suddenly decide you are now unworthy of love? Logically this makes no sense, and the most likely conclusion is that they are the ones who have changed - not you! So don't try to change and don't stop being the same old fabulous you.
4. Show compassion for yourself
When we're in emotional pain we tend to turn the pain inwards and hurt ourselves even more. In order to numb the sadness we stop eating, stop sleeping, start drinking, and more often than not make the pain so much worse. This perpetuates a negative cycle as partying too hard, not eating properly and not getting enough sleep can all seriously impact your mental health and will invariably make you feel worse.
To counteract this, make a concerted effort to treat yourself the way you wish a loving partner would treat you: with love, kindness and respect. Imagine your heartbreak is a real illness like the flu, and take extra care to mend and get better. 'Treat yourself, gets lots of sleep where you can, and eat as healthily as possible,' says Beresford.
5. Keep your distance from your ex
If you've been dumped out of the blue or you simply have unanswered questions about your relationship, you might be feeling like you're left hanging and want some answers. Also it's normal to miss your ex and wonder what they're doing now. But none of this will help you move on, so resist the urge to remain friends and give your ex a really wide berth for as long as possible.
'Unfriend your former partner from social media and try to distance yourself from them at least until you have been able to deal with your grief,' says Dr Bijlani. Further down the line you might be able to salvage a friendship, but right now in the heat of the moment seeing your ex online or in real life will either give you false hope or increase your heartache, so block them from all social media sites, delete their number and focus on yourself.
6. Surround yourself with good people
If you had a broken leg and you couldn't walk, you'd want to be around people who make you smile and cheer you up, and heartbreak is just the same. Surround yourself with positive energy and your spirits will begin to lift. It's a good idea to spend time with 'people who want the best for you – people who can rally round or leave you alone as you wish,' says Beresford.
'It is also often helpful to talk to trusted, close friends about your emotions,' agrees Dr Bijlani. However, steer clear of anyone with close ties to your ex. You're in recovery mode and preparing to step into your bold new life, and anyone who reminds you of the past could prevent you from moving on.
7. Get busy
Is your mind buzzing with unanswered questions and lingering over the past? While it can initially help to wallow in heartache, you can't stay in your pit forever. The best way to get out of your head is to keep busy! Take up a new fitness class, join a gym, meet up with an old friend, or start training for a marathon. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're busy. 'Distraction is a helpful and effective strategy and will help you recover sooner,' explains Dr Bijlani. 'Try not to let this dominate your life, and attempt to return back to your normal daily functioning as soon as possible.'
8. Create a support network
At the end of a relationship it's normal to feel lonely and sad. But no man or woman is an island, so either call on your existing crew or create a new support network of trusted friends you can rely on. If you don't have anyone in your inner circle that you feel comfortable confiding in, attend a support group for likeminded people where you can share your thoughts and feelings. Visit Mentalhealth-uk.org to find support groups in your area. And you never know, you might make a whole new circle of interesting friends.
9. Consider the pros and cons
If you're fresh out of a relationship and feeling raw, it's all too easy to put your ex on a pedestal and imagine they were Mr or Mrs Perfect. But chances are they were normal and human and had plenty of flaws. Write down a list of all the things about them that didn't fit, and see how you feel.
'In the initial stages of heartbreak, remind yourself of the negative aspects of your ex, rather than idolising them by only reminiscing about their positive attributes,' says Dr Bijlani. 'Later on, you might find it helpful to analyse what you liked about them in the first place and whether it would be possible to find such qualities in a future partner.'
10. Seek professional help
If you're struggling to get out of bed and your heart is weighed down with grief, remember: heartbreak is serious, so don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. A mental health professional can help you develop coping mechanisms and provide tools to cope with your heartache, which will not only ease your immediate pain, but can help you to build strength and fortitude for anything life throws at you in the future.
'If you find yourself repeatedly being subjected to heartbreak,' says Dr Bijlani, 'you might find it helpful to see an experienced and properly qualified psychotherapist who could help you address and change possible emotional and behaviour patterns that could be contributing to your seeking unhealthy relationships.' Ask your GP for advice or visit Rethink.org.
11. Get some exercise
It may sound simple and quite possibly the last thing you want to do right now, but exercising in the fresh air can work wonders for your mood and distract you from your heartache in the process. Getting your sweat on can also improve your physical health which will in turn lead to improved body confidence. What's more research shows that exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and negative mood, so what have you got to lose?
12. Start dating
There's an old saying that goes the best way to get an ex off your mind is another one on your body! While we don't advocate casual sex immediately after a breakup, making new friends and meeting new people can work as a great distraction from your heartache. So sign up to dating apps, join that running club and accept those dinner party invitations! Throw yourself back into the mix and you never know who you might meet.
Can you prevent heartbreak?
Sadly, no one is immune from getting their heart broken. But however much it hurts, this may not be a bad thing.
'There is an argument to say that avoiding heartbreak is counter-productive,' explains Beresford. 'Not only can a fear of heartbreak prevent you from meeting new people or throwing yourself into new situations, it can also stunt your emotional growth. Surviving loss or endings or coping with rejection are important life skills to acquire, and they help you develop resilience.
'Many people who have endured deep and painful heartbreak later say that it was the best thing to have happened to them, because it taught them that they were stronger than they realised, it showed them who their friends are, and it gave them the courage to push further in life, making it ultimately more fulfilling.'
Having said that, you may be able to avoid multiple heart breaks if you learn to see relationship red flags and act on them sooner rather than later.
'There are however some tips to swerve heartbreak by waking up in time to the fact that maybe this relationship does not require your investment,' says Beresford. 'Signals such as having deeper feelings for your partner than they have for you, putting up with negativity or unhealthy behaviour in a partner, and making sure you keep your friendship circle alive during a relationship will hopefully mean you won’t feel abandoned if the relationship ends.'
Further help and support
For further help and support with mending a broken heart or overcoming relationship difficulties, try one of the following resources:
Relate: relationship counselling support for couples and families.
Spark: free, confidential relationship help.
Care for the family: marriage support.
The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
NICE: information and clinical guidelines on recommended treatments for different conditions, including anxiety disorders.
Last updated: 15-04-21
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