Heartbreak hurts. Excruciatingly so. In fact, a broken heart hurts so badly that it makes you feel like you might die. But you aren’t really dying, right? Not exactly… Experts like Dr. Guy Winch have studied how the brain responds to a broken heart, however, and it may surprise you to find out that the way a brain reacts to a broken heart is similar to what happens when a brain goes into withdrawal from drug addiction. How is that possible? Dopamine and oxytocin.
We were created to be in relationship with other people. Community and social bonds make life easier, more fun, and increase our chances of happiness and survival. That’s why, when we bond with someone, especially a best friend, family member, or romantic partner, the brain triggers the dopamine and oxytocin systems to signal that this is a rewarding activity. It makes us feel good! Or, in the case of substance abuse, it makes us dependent and unable to naturally produce our own dopamine and oxytocin without the external cue of our “drug.”
Just like when drug or alcohol abusers are detoxing or “coming down” from their addiction substance, a breakup–the sudden removal or loss of those dopamine and oxytocin booster signals–causes you to enter a literal state of withdrawal. While relationship withdrawal is not nearly as severe or life-threatening as substance abuse withdrawal can be, it does make you feel terrible. So if you’re wondering if it’s possible that your broken heart is causing you physical pain, it is! Your brain became accustomed to having that relationship as a source of dopamine and oxytocin, and now, that’s gone.
Broken Heart Syndrome
We’ve all heard stories of people dying of a broken heart, and while those may be an exaggeration, the physical symptoms of a broken heart have been so widely reported over the years that it’s hard to deny that they’re real. There’s a colloquial term for one such symptom: broken heart syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. This phenomenon is known to mimic the feeling of having a heart attack, usually directly following extreme emotional stress. While it’s not life-threatening, it has brought folks to the emergency room in fear that they’re literally dying.
You probably can’t get an official diagnosis for broken heart syndrome, but if you’re experiencing overwhelming physical symptoms after your breakup, you should talk to your doctor about whether you might be experiencing anxiety, panic attacks, or a depressive episode–when a specific circumstance causes or increases symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder. Depression and anxiety come with their own sets of debilitating physical symptoms, which could explain why you may feel like your broken heart is killing you.
Physical Signs of a Broken Heart
The very real impact of a broken heart on your body can look like the following:
- Disturbance in sleep patterns, whether that be insomnia or sleeping too much. Loss of sleep, the inability to wake up at a “normal” time, or suddenly needing several hours more sleep per day than usual are all signs that your body is in some form of distress.
- Disturbance in appetite or digestion patterns, whether that presents as loss of appetite, an insatiable desire to numb feelings with binge eating, sudden weight gain/loss, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, or nausea and vomiting.
- Tightness in chest, a racing heart, dizziness, or shaking.
- Constant head and/or body aches.
- Extreme fatigue or listlessness that inhibits your ability to focus.
- Weakened immune system. Your body is working hard to heal from recent stress and may not have the resources it normally does to battle common bacteria and viruses.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s important that you seek help.
What Can You Do About Your Broken Heart?
In some cases, we may (literally) be chemically addicted to love or a specific relationship, which means that a broken heart is (literally) relationship withdrawal. If recovering from a broken heart, then, can look like recovering from an addiction, how can you walk yourself through “relationship rehab” and journey toward healing?
- Cut off your supply. You don’t recover from drug addiction while you’re still taking the drug. You don’t want to try to recover from this breakup while still engaging with your ex. Even if it’s just for now, stop talking to, hanging out with, and otherwise engaging with your ex. Hide or discard anything that reminds you of them. If you need to block their phone number and social media accounts, do so. You can always unblock later.
- Reach out for support. Any effective treatment program is going to encourage you to lean on trusted friends and family while you recover. You don’t have to, and some would argue that you can’t, do this alone. Get yourself a “breakup sponsor” or two whether it’s your mom or your best friend. It’s so helpful to have someone you can call or text when you start feeling bad or craving that old relationship.
- Mark your calendar. Most treatment programs also last for a set amount of time. A few weeks to several months. That amount of time isn’t guaranteed to “fix” your problem, and every person heals at their own pace. It may help you visualize and prioritize your healing journey, however, if you open your calendar or planner and decide your breakup recovery is going to last at least 2 weeks/months/years or whatever feels right to you.
- Don’t make any major decisions. Now may not be the time to chop off your hair, move to a new city, quit your job, or start a new relationship. Run any big ideas by your support network just to make sure you’re staying true to yourself, not just reacting to your recent distress.
- Prioritize rest. Your brain is going through a lot. You’re going to be tired. Get your basic 8 hours of sleep and don’t overbook your schedule.
- Prioritize health. Eat nutritious foods. Stay hydrated. Move your body. If your body isn’t functioning properly, it’s not going to be able to cope with any physical symptoms you have.
- Reflect, process, and come to terms with reality. There’s usually a lot of talk therapy, support groups, and journaling in a recovery program. Give yourself that space too. Talk through important questions with friends or explore them in a journal: Do you have a love addiction? Were you unhealthily dependent upon the relationship that just ended? How did the relationship change you, for better and for worse? What did you appreciate about the relationship, and what would you do differently in your next one? What else is important to you in life besides romantic relationships?
- Look for fun and healthy ways to replace some of those dopamine and oxytocin triggers. Get into yoga. Go outside–there’s a reason so many addiction treatment programs incorporate nature and outdoor activities in their program. There are even studies that suggest getting your hands literally dirty while gardening or potting plants can increase your dopamine levels.
What’s the Spiritual Perspective on Heartbreak?
Listen to the opening lyrics of “Come As You Are” by David Crowder:
Come out of sadness
From wherever you’ve been
Come broken hearted
Let rescue begin.
God Himself is no stranger to heartbreak, and even Jesus wept with sorrow. The Bible is filled with verses of hope, empathy, and strength for those who are hurting. All you have to do is reach out for help, and you’ll receive it. If you want help understanding how God can help you with your pain, talk to a Hope Coach today. You are not alone, and there is light in the darkness. We’ll leave you with a promise from the same song:
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal.