The Science of Heartbreak

July 21, 2009, 7:00 amwomenshealth

How to break up without breaking down


Somewhere, buried beneath the screwed-up tissues and Tori Amos CDs, there's a reason why breaking up is so f***ing hard to do. A study by The American Journal of Cardiology observed 70 patients with "broken heart syndrome" (otherwise known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) and found their symptoms mimicked those of a heart attack - shortness of breath, chest pain and a huge surge of stress hormones. They also found that the patients recovered, most after being given aspirin or heart drugs, if treated quickly. While popping an Aspro Clear may only dull the ache of a break-up slightly, researchers have started looking into the reasons for our post-relationship pain, despair and sudden desire to slump, weeping brokenly and wearing our ugliest tracksuit, in front of sad movies. We waded through the research and asked the experts how to navigate Splitsville like a grown-up.

After 24 hours

Physically Wham. Whether you're the dumper or the dumpee, you've found yourself in a single room in Heartbreak Hotel. It's pretty sparse and there are no familiar pictures on the walls. You might feel sad, relieved, panicky, numb, liberated or slightly sick. Or all of the above. The connection between emotional and physical pain is very real - when a person experiences loss, changes in the brain's blood flow occur and the anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for regulating physical pain and distress) becomes more active. Depression may kick in, especially if you didn't want out: in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that of 114 subjects who'd been romantically rejected in the eight weeks leading up to the study, 40 per cent remained clinically depressed and 12 per cent remained moderately to severely depressed.

Emotionally "This can't be real, we'll get back together" is on repeat in your head while you're in the first stage of grief - denial. As you shakily emerge from a full-on I-thought-he-was-the-one/who-gets-custody-of-the-dog?/what-about-our-joint-mortgage? situation, experts say your body and brain are in a state almost similar to mental illness. "In the very first days you're simply responding to trauma," says counsellor Karen Masman, author of The Uses of Sadness. "Be practical and just get through each hour - this is not the time to reflect on the meaning of your break-up and what the lessons are." Ride the emotional tsunami and, yes, rent Marley & Me. University of South Florida researchers found that 88.8 per cent of people feel better after crying out emotional tears (as opposed to onion-chopping ones) because they release the stress hormone prolactin from the body.

The good news If the relationship was toxic, you may have just boosted your health. A break-up may weaken your heart a little for the short term, but staying in a bad relationship is noxious. A 2007 study conducted at University College London found that people in unsupportive and stressful relationships had a 34 per cent higher chance of having future heart problems compared to those in happy couplings.

Musically You may find yourself suddenly relating to David Gray. Or really feeling Beyoncé's Survivor. If you don't feel like company tonight, raid your iPod for all the music your ex couldn't stand (the Love Actually soundtrack, anyone?) and play on repeat until you fall

After 1 week

Physically You're sleeping as infrequently as a new mum and your toast-for-dinner diet is messing with your immune system and energy levels. Expect headaches, skin outbreaks and bad hair days from the combo of stress hormones and poor nutrient intake. "Recognise if you're medicating your sadness with food, alcohol or drugs and call your mum or a friend and ask if you can come over for a proper meal," says WH relationships expert, psychologist Dr Traci Coventry. Force yourself to work out - do a yoga or spin class, or go for a swim... Anything that delivers a much-needed supply of endorphins.

Emotionally You're in obsession stage: with all the ways you screwed up, with whether you're going to be alone for all eternity. An MRI study conducted by Dr Helen Fisher and colleagues from Rutgers University, US, found the recently dumped had elevated activity in several brain regions, including those that control obsessive thinking, anger suppression and output of dopamine - a neurotransmitter associated with risk-taking. Tell your friends and at least one person at work what you're going through so they can keep an eye on you. And don't sweat partaking in embarrassing stalker-like behaviour - even if you ended the relationship, at this point it's practically mandatory (of course, we're talking Facebook-following and "coincidentally"-turning-up-at-the-same-party-style stalking rather than the type that could warrant an AVO).

The good news There is beauty in heartbreak. Don't throw a shoe at us - it's what all the experts we spoke to said. "Until you heart breaks a little, it will never grow bigger," says Masman. "It's a measure of the love you had in the relationship." Dr Alice Boyles, a clinical psychologist and relationships expert agrees: "Break-ups can have many positive psychological consequences. Sometimes people don't realise how much stress being in a relationship that wasn't working was causing, or how much stress indecision was causing, until it all ends. Break-ups can lead to tremendous personal growth." You might not see it yet, but now you get carte blanche to shape your life exactly the way you want it.

Musically If you've moved on to AVM (Angry Vagina Music) like Alanis, Kelly Clarkson or Pink, you're doing really well. If you're playing R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts or, worse, Elliott Smith (akin to emotional self harm), not so much. But hey, it's totally OK to wallow right now.


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