The Effects (and Benefits) of Heartbreak

There’s a hundred different ways I can lead into this article. I could tell you about all the times a significant other has brought my enter sense of self down a notch or the books that have yanked at my heart strings or even the gallons of tears I’ve shed being forced to see ASPCA commercials.

In lieu of those very personal anecdotes (as I’ve already delved into this in an older article of mine), I’m going to come right at you with the hard truth: you will have your heartbroken, probably a bunch of times, and there’s nothing you can do about.

You read that correctly. There is literally nothing you can do to entirely prevent heartbreak other than completely isolating yourself from any and every thing or person. I will say, though, that this strategy will more than likely lead to turmoil anyway because a life without positive stimuli (or any stimuli really) is a dark one.

Some of the more common effects that heartbreak can have on you are emotional, starting with a severe decline in mood.

Heartbreak affects everyone differently but, in almost all cases, it’s not usually a pleasant experience. In fact, heartbreak can actually cause death. While the likelihood of this outcome is not very high, there is a “buffet” of side effects that can come from heartbreak starting with that feeling in your gut that feels a lot like your stomach is trying to digest itself.

This is not a trick of the mind. Alternatively, it is a trick of the brain because your brain is interpreting this pain as if you were actually physically injured according to science.

Lights of ideas

Photo courtesy of A Health Blog on Flickr.com

“If you think you hate being dumped, your brain hates it even more. The region of it that lights up when you’re in physical agony also goes haywire when you suffer social rejection,” Naomi Eisenberger, Ph.D. and assistant professor of psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles, told Amy Sutherland of Women’s Health.

Eisenberger goes on to explain that this function of the brain exists to ensure that our bodies understand as well as our brains that this is a painful process and not just a figment of the imagination.

Heartbreak is also associated with the same parts of the brain as cocaine withdrawal according to a study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2010.

“Researchers at Stony Brook University had 15 brokenhearted men look at a picture of the ex they had been obsessing over and then try to complete a math problem while researchers studied their brain activity,” Kelli Bender from TheFrisky.com wrote in a summary of the study’s findings. “Then the same process was done over again, only this time using a photo of someone the subject knew, but not intimately. The test showed that certain areas of the brain are much more active after seeing the image of the ex. This [sic] same active areas are also afire in cocaine addicts who are experiencing physical pain while going through withdrawal.”

I’ve never gone through drug withdrawal but as an expert in having my heartbroken, I firmly stand by my decision to never experience it. However, the upside is that the pain associated with drug withdrawal eventually fades away.

You may not be physically injured when the first initial heartbreak occurs but as you suffer from it on a more long-term basis, it can begin to wear away at your physical being in a number of ways starting with your body completely giving up on trying to regulate your stress levels. At first, this is a good thing because you know the “fight or flight” function of your brain is working because this flood of stress hormones is meant to sharpen your reaction skills.

But the bad thing about this little number is where the element of death I mentioned


Photo courtesy of brykmantra on Flickr.com

before comes in. Stress interrupts your normal flow of blood, meaning blood is going where it shouldn’t be and isn’t getting to where it needs to be. Your digestive track is deprived causing digestion issues, your muscles are overwhelmed causing aches and pains all over, and your immune system is obstructed making you more prone to illness, according to Eisenberger.

Additionally, your likeliness to die from a heart attack without any pre-existing conditions after experiencing a heartbreak spikes from 20% to 35% according to a multitude of studies, most recently one from Johns Hopkins University.

This is better known as “Broken Heart Syndrome“.

I’m sure you had an idea of what heartbreak was like when you clicked on this article but I’m guessing everything seems grim as all get out right now, right? Fear not but this bad news comes with good news.

First of all, you will almost definitely live through it. I know I put the scare in you a couple of paragraphs back but, in reality, broken heart syndrome isn’t very common.

Second of all, having your heart broken can be a surprisingly cathartic experience. It may seem all bad because, frankly, who loses someone and immediately thinks of all the great things that are going to come from it? After getting over a broken heart, you’ll find that there are many things you can take away from it.

For starters, you can learn a whole lot more about yourself than any psychology or sociology class can teach you. In fact, there are things that you can only learn from having your heart broken. To give a few examples…

  • How to spot red flags in relationships
  • What qualities you do and don’t like in someone
  • What qualities you need from a significant other (I personally can’t vibe with someone who isn’t funny)
  • You can do everything “right” and still end up in a crappy relationship.
  • Second-guessing too much will ruin everything but you should never not listen to your gut.
  • Being alone is okay.
  • Pain is okay.
  • You are worth much more than you realize.

The list could go on forever. But you learn a lot.

Next, and quite possibly the most important benefit of a break up, is you get a fresh start. When you’re in a relationship, especially a bad one, you don’t realize how much you’re being held back from. This isn’t to say that this is always intentional; not all significant others constrict their loved ones or realize their constricting their loved ones. The fact of the matter is that you are going to make sacrifices in any relationship and whether or not you see this as a restriction is up to you.

But either way, once your ties are severed, you have literally nothing holding you back. Maybe your boyfriend hated the sight of raw fish — take that deep sea fishing trip you’ve always wanted to or finally try that new sushi place down the block. Maybe your girlfriend was extremely introverted — get your butt over to that club everyone’s been talking about. Never tried online dating? It’s not that great but it’s worth a shot! Single life may be painful at first but when you realize how much of the world opens up in the wake of this devastation, everything works itself out.

Lastly, and most cliche of all, you become stronger and more experienced for the next go around, which will happen but only if you allow yourself to heal rather than sulking over someone who couldn’t have been right for you or you would’ve worked it out. Focus on bettering yourself not just for the sake of your future with someone else but for a life-long future with yourself because hey, that’s who you’re stuck with until the end.


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