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    Depression, Mental Health, White River Manor

    The trauma of heartbreak

    Published on September 2, 2022

    Going through a breakup is a traumatic experience that can flip our entire world upside down. Ask any psychologist or mental health professional, and they’ll tell you that breakups are a form of grief.

    But unlike the typical grief experience, it seems we are better prepared to help our loved ones’ through heartbreak than the death of a loved one. 

    However, when our hearts are on the line, we are often shocked and disturbed by our reactions when a meaningful relationship ends.

    Research shows various correlations between having our hearts broken and the likelihood of developing physical and mental health conditions.

    Recovering from a breakup can feel impossible, especially in the beginning.

    The anger and raw emotions that accompany the ending of something meaningful can often feel infinite. As a result, some may find it impossible to see beyond the pain of heartbreak and become isolated and withdrawn.  

    You may also experience shock, disbelief, and intense sorrow and be filled with uncertainty about a future without your loved one.

    Picking up the pieces

    couple fight

    All this is expected when the world as we know it has suddenly been torn apart, especially when we are left to pick up the pieces of whatever was lost along with the relationship.

    Although the days, weeks and months following a breakup can be profoundly challenging, most people eventually adjust and move toward acceptance and wellness. Moreover, some of us find the recovery process much more straightforward than others.

    However, the trauma of heartbreak seems to be a universal experience, our hearts may have healed, but the body tells a different story. As Bessel Van Der Kolk once said, the body keeps the score.

    The physical implications of heartbreak

    A study into the physical effects of heartbreak showed that those who had recently gone through a breakup experienced similar brain activity when looking at pictures of a former partner as they do when in physical pain (What Does Heartbreak Do to Your Health? Healthline, Anna Schaefer, March 16th, 2016).

    Brain regions 

    The research on why a breakup profoundly impacts our physical health isn’t as straightforward as some might expect.

    However, the researchers found that specific emotions like rejection and physical and emotional pain are processed in the same brain regions (What Does Heartbreak Do to Your Health? Healthline, Anna Schaefer, March 16th, 2016).

    Fight or flight

    Other researchers looked at the fight and flight response and explored how these trauma reactions are triggered during stress or when emotions are heightened.

    One study described the association between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, stating that both systems react simultaneously during times of crisis or heartbreak.

    Parasympathetic nervous system

    The researchers explained the functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

    Essentially, the parasympathetic nervous system takes care of relaxed body functions such as saliva production and digestion.

    Sympathetic nervous system

    In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action. 

    You may have heard of fight or flight, a response that releases a rush of chemicals into the body during times of threat or danger, a reaction that signals specific parts of the body to wake up.

    The above may explain why our heart rate quickens, and our muscles become tense during times of danger or crisis. 

    Considering how these two systems affect the body, it’s not surprising that heartbreak can have such a detrimental impact on our health – our bodies experiencing discomfort during times of stress seems logical enough, given this explanation.

    The trauma of heartbreak

    The physical effects of heartbreak are impossible to ignore – for instance, some physicians reported that a vast majority of their patients had suffered heart attacks and strokes after a breakup.

    The trauma of heartbreak can affect many aspects of a person’s life. Heartbreak can obliterate our sense of self and how we see the world and others. 

    Researcher and author Sheri Jacobson stated that going through heartbreak is similar to coming off drugs.

    Jacobson explained that love is primarily a motivational state – she pointed out that while love triggers emotions, the brain also creates love to get what it wants, the object of affection.

    The researchers in the study analysed the brains of fifteen men and women. 

    They found that the participants in love also had activity in regions of the brain linked to loss, cravings, and emotion regulation (The Psychology of Heartbreak and How it Can Help You, Sheri Jacobson, Harley Therapy, July 31st, 2014).

    The research concluded that people who were desperately unhappy in their relationships and going through a breakup were still in “motivation mode”.

    In addition, their brain neurons still expected a reward (The Psychology of Heartbreak and How it Can Help You, Sheri Jacobson, Harley Therapy, July 31st, 2014).

    Loss of identity

    Sad woman during group therapy, indoors

    Inherently, our identities are shaped by others, so when a crucial relationship ends, the parts of us that existed within that unique dynamic also dissolve into the ether.

    An unspoken double loss occurs after a breakup, the loss of a partner, and an enormous loss of self – people often mourn both parts simultaneously. Still, it appears that some losses are more understood than others.

    Lifestyle changes

    Some experts say that heartbreak can lead to weight loss, weight gain, mood changes, a severe lack of motivation, headaches, stomach complaints, and many other health problems.

    Additionally, those who are heartbroken may experience:

    Gabor Mate: Imagining a trauma-informed world

    An insightful view on trauma and heartbreak can be explained by addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Mate.

    Mate describes trauma as “the invisible force that shapes our lives.” 

    In an interview, Mate spoke about a trauma-informed world where doctors, teachers, people in law enforcement, judges, policy-makers and parents were trauma-informed.

    Instead of fixing behaviours, making diagnoses, suppressing symptoms or judging others, society must seek to understand the source of problematic behaviours and the diseases that manifest due to the wounded human soul (The Wisdom of Trauma, Dr. Gabor Mate).

    Heartbreak is inherently a traumatic experience – it disturbs our inner peace and sense of self and can change our perceptions of the world as we once knew it.

    Mate said that humans collectively and individually carry a backlog of pain that has never been heard because we miss narratives to help us share, witness, and hold space for each other’s wounds (The Wisdom of Trauma, Dr. Gabor Mate).

    Trauma cannot always be conquered, fixed, or resolved, but it can be heard, held and loved (The Wisdom of Trauma, Dr. Gabor Mate).

    Healing through heartbreak

    Recovering from addiction

    As tempting as it might be, we cannot rush through recovery. Fortunately, there are various ways we can help ourselves through heartbreak.

    You may find it helpful to:

    • Stay active
    • Maintain healthy eating habits
    • Keep in touch with family and friends
    • Engage in therapy
    • Stay away from social media for a while

    Some say the best recovery for getting over a heartbreak is time. However, engaging in self-care measures can help guide you toward wellness and acceptance, safe in the knowledge that there is life after heartbreak.

    Contact us

    If you want more information about this article or are struggling to come to terms with a breakup, our friendly specialists are always on hand to listen.

    Contact the team at White River Manor today.

    Helpful resources

    About Giles Fourie

    Giles Fourie is the director and co-founder of White River Manor. He is dedicated to providing the best care for clients seeking recovery from substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or co-occurring disorders.