Anyone who’s experienced the heartbreak of a relationship ending knows it can be emotionally devastating. But scientists have found that a breakup also has physical effects on our brains — and our bodies.
In Love Hurts: The Science of Heartbreak, a documentary from The Nature of Things, Anthony Morgan speaks with researchers and scientists to discover the biological effects of a broken heart.
In the documentary, Morgan meets a team researching Takotsubo syndrome, where the stress of heartbreak or loss can actually change the shape of your heart and mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. The film also features a Montreal researcher who is experimenting with using a pill and a brief period of psychotherapy to erase the difficult emotions associated with bad memories.
But there’s lots we can do on our own to ease the pain of heartbreak. We’ve compiled some of the best advice from experts who have put heartache under the microscope.
Let yourself be sad: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you when you feel this way’
“I think the most important thing is … to take care of yourself during this incredibly painful time,” says Zoe Donaldson, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Recovering from heartbreak means letting your body do what it was built to do. “We’re biologically programmed, and it’s almost inevitable that we fall in love at some point. It’s also inevitable that we’ll experience loss, but we have systems in place that allow us to biologically adapt to these things.”
Let yourself be sad, cry and mourn the loss of this hugely significant part of your life. By giving yourself a break, you can allow your body to start the recovery process from the inside. But that’s not to say you can’t help things along.
“There’s nothing wrong with you when you feel this way,” she says. “So get sleep. If you can, eat healthy, engage with friends, and know that it will just be a long time until you start feeling something resembling normalcy again but that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“There’s no instantaneous solution,” adds Donaldson. But she thinks ice cream will get you partway there. Coffee ice cream, in particular. “There is no other flavour,” she says with a smile.
Hug it out
According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana and the chief science adviser for the dating site Match.com, hugging other people drives up oxytocin (a.k.a. the love hormone) in the brain, which helps break the cycle of craving the oxytocin release that was previously provided by an ex-partner.
“It’s very clear that [love] is an addiction,” says Fisher. “And so what you’ve got to do is treat it as an addiction.” So toss the mementoes. “Don’t write, don’t call, don’t show up,” she says. “Don’t try to be friends with this person because all you’re doing is clinging to the ghost.
“Go out with other people, get hugs from other people — that drives up the oxytocin system and can calm you, give you feelings of attachment.”
Remove the emotion — but not the memory — of a breakup
Alain Brunet, a clinical psychologist at McGill University’s Douglas Research Centre in Montreal, has been researching how the combination of a common medication and psychotherapy can help remove the emotional trauma associated with PTSD — or a bad breakup.
In a treatment method called “reconsolidation therapy,” patients are given propranolol, a medication normally used to treat high blood pressure, and then are asked to recount the experience of their breakup, reliving the painful memories and emotions over several sessions. In the end, the emotional trauma of the breakup is lessened, but the memory remains.
“My number one tip is reconsolidation therapy,” says Brunet. “In the meantime, go out with your best friend, have some excellent food and drink some good wine.”
Go on an adventure
Fisher also suggests changing up your routine and trying new things. “Go to new and exciting places. Do new and exciting things that drive up the dopamine system and give you optimism and focus and motivation and energy,” says Fisher. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that plays a large role in feeling pleasure. The more ways you can increase dopamine, the better you’ll feel.
“Move around. When you get sunlight, when you smile, you feel better.… Exercise drives up the dopamine system and reduces some of the pain. [It] drives up the endorphins for less pain. Just keep moving.”
Make someone’s day
According to Steve Cole, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at UCLA in Los Angeles, one of the best things we can do when our body is in a state of prolonged stress is to find ways to apply ourselves and do good in the world.
“In many respects, the opposite of loneliness is purpose,” says Cole. “Loneliness is a state of disconnection and, to some extent, pessimism, often backward-looking in terms of the loss of a relationship or a loss of trust in humanity.” Having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is the flip side of that, he says.
While the pain of heartbreak can be crushing, “finding some new mission in life to plunge into” can heal that broken heart, says Cole. “Get back into the mix of making the world a better place, getting beyond your own personal suffering, your own personal crisis, and get back into the swing of helping others, of being part of the world outside your own true tragedy.