Heal your broken heart with science — plus ice cream and good wine
Anyone who has experienced the grief of a relationship ending knows that it can be emotionally devastating. But scientists have found that separation also has physical effects on our brains and bodies.
in Love Hurts: The Science of Heartbreaka documentary film from The nature of things, Anthony Morgan talks 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 change the shape of your heart and mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. The film also features a Montreal researcher experimenting with the use of birth control pills and a short period of psychotherapy to erase difficult feelings associated with bad memories.
But there is a lot we can do on our own to ease the pain of heartbreak. We’ve rounded up some of the best advice from experts who have put heartache under the microscope.
Let yourself grieve: “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 very traumatic time,” says Zoe Donaldson, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Recovering from heartbreak means allowing your body to do what it was created to do. “We are biologically programmed, and it is almost inevitable that we will fall in love at some point. We are also inevitable that we will experience loss, but we have systems in place that allow us to biologically adapt to these things.”
Allow yourself to grieve, cry, and mourn the loss of this very important part of your life. By giving yourself a break, you can allow your body to begin the healing process from within. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help things along.
“There’s nothing wrong with you when you feel that way,” she says. “So, get sleep. If you can, eat healthy, interact with friends, and know that it will take a long time until you start to feel something like normalcy again, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“There is no immediate solution,” Donaldson adds. But she believes ice cream will get you there. Coffee ice cream, in particular. “There is no other flavour,” she says with a smile.
According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Indiana’s Kinsey Institute and chief scientific advisor for the dating site Match.com, hugging others increases oxytocin (aka the love hormone) in the brain, which helps break the cycle of cravings. Release of oxytocin that was previously provided by a former partner.
“It’s very clear that (love) is an addiction,” Fisher says. “So what you have to do is treat it as an addiction.” So toss the memorabilia. “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.
“Hang out with other people, get hugs from other people — it stimulates the oxytocin system and can calm you down, give you feelings of connection.”
Remove the feeling—but not the memory—of the breakup
Alain Brunet, a clinical psychologist at the Douglas Research Center at McGill University in Montreal, has been researching how combining common medications and psychotherapy can help remove the emotional trauma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder — or a bad breakup.
In a treatment method called “reconsolidation therapy,” patients are given propranolol, a medication typically used to treat high blood pressure, and are then asked to recount the breakup experience, recalling traumatic memories and emotions over several sessions. Eventually, the emotional trauma of the breakup lessens, but the memory remains.
“My first tip is reconsolidation therapy,” Brunet says. “In the meantime, go out with your best friend, eat 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 push the dopamine system and give you optimism, focus, motivation and energy,” Fisher says. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that plays a big role in the feeling of pleasure. The more ways you can increase dopamine, the better you’ll feel.
“Move. When you’re in the sun, when you smile, you feel better. … Exercise stimulates the dopamine system and reduces some of the pain. (It) stimulates endorphins to reduce pain. Just keep moving.”
Make someone’s day
According to Steve Cole, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, one of the best things we can do when our body has been in a state of stress for an extended period of time is to find ways to apply ourselves and do good in the world.
“In many ways, reversing loneliness is the goal,” Cole says. “Loneliness is a state of disconnection and, to some extent, pessimism, often looking back in terms of a loss of relationship or a loss of faith in humanity.” A sense of purpose and meaning in life is the other side of that, he says.
While the pain of heartbreak can be overwhelming, “finding a new mission in life to immerse yourself in” can heal that broken heart, Cole says. “Get back into the mix of making the world a better place, getting past your personal suffering, your personal crisis, getting back to helping others, being part of the world outside of your real tragedy.
(tags for translation) heartbreak