Imagine if breakups could be more like clothes.
Think about it. We try on an outfit, we wear it around, see how it fits. If it doesn’t work out—we just tuck it in the back of the closet, or ship it back with the pre-paid return label, and go look for a new one. Problem solved; no feelings hurt; next.
Obviously, finding the right relationship is far more complex than the daily quest of finding a working outfit (even though I do have a serious co-dependency to my denim jacket). We’re talking about two separate human beings. But, common sense aside: What makes heartbreak so hard? And how should we deal with that pain after a heart-wrenching split?
Turns out the heart is involved <3.
One of the worst parts about heartbreak is our body’s rather bizarre response. We cry, we have cravings, and often times we want to crawl into bed for days. But what if I told you these coping mechanisms are not a sign of mental weakness, but rather that our bodies are obeying a direct order from the heart for radical self-care?
You see, heartbreak physically affects our autonomic nervous system (ANS), hormone regulation, and immune system. Which explains why our chest physically hurts or experience loss of breath, a stomach ache, or fatigue when we have a broken heart.
Research into love has mostly focused on how the brain informs the heart. However, HeartMath, a research institution dedicated to understanding the intelligence of the heart, has conducted studies that indicate that the relationship is bidirectional—the heart can also inform the brain. The heart communicates with the brain in four ways: nerve impulses, hormones and neurotransmitters, pulse, and energetically. Thus, the state of our heart greatly affects our performance, awareness, perception, and intelligence of our worldview consciously and subconsciously.
Heartbreak indeed goes beyond the mind—but the brain also suffers.
Popular belief still positions unbearable heartbreak, grief, or loss as just a mental health issue. And although HeartMath has shown this isn’t the whole story, the brain is definitely still a big part of the biological picture.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love and researcher for match.com, investigates the brain in love. She has discovered that the “reward system,” the part of the brain that is connected to addiction, activates when we are falling romantically in love. Just like an addiction to a substance, this part of the brain activates even more when we can’t have something (or someone) we desperately want. Hence, why it is so excruciatingly hard to shake a breakup. (See, we aren’t crazy! We’re just riding the roller coaster of natural human biology.)
In a Ted Talk, Fisher chuckles with the audience, confessing, “Unfortunately, the primary biological function for humans is to find a partner to procreate with, not necessarily to find happiness.” Say What? Well. This might explain why romantic love continues to be one of our innate desires, a perpetuating mystery, and a challenge for so many of us.
What should we do while the head and the heart do their thing?
So, if we are doomed to be in the cycle of love and loss, what can we do to feel a little less crazy when heartbreak gets a hold of our brain and our heart?
Alas, there is no one correct answer. Unfortunately, time is the biggest healer—and that can take, well, time. But there are some tricks on how you can best use that time. Here is some conventional advice—and some unconventional:
01. Go to the woods. A redwoods research study concluded that trees can elicit positive emotions in people. The pulse waves emitting from the trees are in relationship with the pulse waves of the human heart. Researchers in Japan also support this idea of “forest bathing” by concluding that walking in a forest versus walking in a city lowers your blood pressure and boosts your mood.
02. Drink green tea. (Preferably decaffeinated.) You might have thought red foods would be associated with the heart, but green foods (beet greens, parsley, kale) are most beneficial for assisting our cardiovascular system. But let’s get real, how many of us reach for a salad when we are in the early stages of heartbreak (certainly not me). Yet, sipping green tea can be a gentle warming ritual that assists our ANS in calming down, so we get our appetite back for the green leafy, hearty stuff.
03. Practice mindfulness. Living in the moment helps us you live a happier life—but it’s not just that. Used for meditative or spiritual practices, it catapults our thinking from the past and into the present, which is a recipe for living with joy and gratitude. As Verily contributor Julia Hogan, LCPC states, “Practicing mindfulness can alter your brain structure, strengthening the biological connections for concentration and attention while weakening the connections for fear and stress.” Moreover, practicing mindfulness will actually promote your heart’s health—helping your body repair any emotional damage a sudden breakup can cause.
Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on earth. Our brain is biologically wired with this addiction to keep us connected—and the biology of the heart further confirms that when loss hits our lives that it’s not just our mental health that needs a lil’ extra lovin’, but our physical heart health does, too.