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Heartbreak causes dramatic emotional pain. We feel it viscerally—in our chest, our throat, and our gut. Our heart can literally feel as though it aches—which is why we refer to the experience as having a broken heart. But while the visceral sensations of heartbreak lead us to focus on the physical neighborhood of our heart, the organ we should be worried about is the brain. When our heart gets broken our brain responds dramatically and it is these reactions that are responsible for all the terrible “”””symptoms”””” we associate with heartbreak.
Understanding why we feel, think, and behave as we do when we’re heartbroken is vital if we hope to manage our responses and recover. Much happens in our brain when our heart gets broken but here are three primary ways we are affected:
1. Emotional pain that feels like physical pain.
fMRI studies of heartbroken people have revealed that heartbreak activates similar mechanisms in the brain to those activated when we experience physical pain. In some studies, the emotional pain people experienced was rated as equivalent to “”””nearly unbearable”””” physical pain. Consider, though, that while physical pain rarely remains at such intense levels for an extended duration of time, the pain of heartbreak can linger for days, weeks, and even months. This is why the suffering heartbreak causes can be so extreme.
2. Withdrawal symptoms.
Other fMRI studies have found that heartbreak activates the same mechanisms in the brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine and opioids. These powerful withdrawal symptoms from the loss of love impact our ability to think, focus, and function in the broadest terms. We would never expect an addict in the midst of withdrawal to be able to function in their job or personal life because we understand they are in a temporarily abnormal mental state. We need to think of heartbreak in the same terms and modify our expectations of ourselves and others accordingly.
3. Intrusive thoughts that keep us stuck.
When our heart is broken, our brain will generate intrusive thoughts of our ex that invade our thoughts without warning. It may be a mental image of the partner, a snippet of conversation, a memory, or some other reminder. Each time such a thought appears, it interrupts us, reopens our wound, reactivates our emotional pain, and triggers our withdrawal symptoms. Given that intrusive thoughts can occur dozens of times in an hour, and how significantly they can set us back, it is clear why so many of us struggle to get over heartbreak and recover in a timely manner.
Understanding the challenges we face when recovering from heartbreak should make us more self-compassionate and help us to avoid needless self-criticism and self-blame. The more we limit our ex’s appearances in our thoughts, the quicker we will be able to recover. Knowing that our brain is making us think about our ex involuntarily and incessantly can help us limit the time we choose to think or talk about them voluntarily.
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