The Psychology of Heartbreak and How it Can Help You

Heartbreak can feel like being run over by a giant lorry as you’re riding a roller coaster. It gives you highs, lows, and leaves you utterly knocked out no matter how much you tell yourself to ‘just get over it’.

But why is it that heartbreak is so hard to recover from?  Does it cause actual fatigue and physical symptoms, or are you imagining that? And why can a breakup feel so bad if you didn’t even enjoy the actual relationship?

By looking at the psychology of heartbreak you can find answers to all of these questions, and better yet, you can discover practical tactics to more effectively manage when your heart takes a hit.

The 5 Things You Need to Know About Heartbreak and Your Mind

1. For your brain, coming through heartbreak is like coming off of drugs.

We all want to think of love as an emotion. But when researchers looked at the brain in love they discovered that, while love triggers emotions, it is actually more of a ‘motivational state’. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of 15 men and women who claimed to be very much in love and found activation in the part of the brain connected with gains, losses, cravings and regulation of emotions.

In other words, the brain creates love to get what it wants. What it wants is the object of affection, so it manufactures love to motivate you to deliver its desire.

The same researchers discovered it didn’t matter if the person was no longer happily in love but was in the throes of a breakup and feeling terrible. Their brain was still in motivation mode and the neurons still expected a reward.

And the really interesting thing is that this part of the brain, which works around gains, losses, and cravings,  is the same part of the brain that lights up when someone is a cocaine addict. So both when we are in love and when we are fresh from a breakup, we are essentially like a drug addict.

TAKEAWAY TIP:  When you are in the throes of heartbreak you are as logical as a drug addict coming clean. So while usually it’s important to trust that you know what is best for you, heartbreak is one of the times you might want to trust your family and good friends. If they say it’s not a good idea to call the ex, it probably isn’t.

Also, find support. Like coming off drugs, breaking away from a relationship is hard, and we all need a ‘you can do it’ team as we go.

2. Heartbreak makes your mind an extremist.

As evolutionary psychologists are fond of pointing out, our brains are slow developers that are still caveman-like in their programming. So when we experience a stressful situation like a heartbreak, our brain sends out a ‘fight or flight’ signal, as if we are about to be killed if we don’t react.

One of these fight or flight mechanisms is what is known as ‘black and white thinking’ also called ‘all-or-nothing thinking’ or ‘splitting’). Black and white thinking is when we only see things in extremes. Way back in prehistoric times, this helped our brain in times when uncertainty would up our chances of getting killed and we needed to run away, not ponder the options.

Nowadays black and white thinking  is less a lifesaver, and more a source of drama. For example, if we know we need to leave a job we are in and it is stressing us out, we might think, ‘if I leave this job I will never find anything else, and if I stay I will be miserable forever’. When it comes to heartbreak, the options we see might be ‘I will never find love again’ and ‘I am going to date every person who asks me from now on as I don’t care’, or ‘she was the best person I ever dated’ to ‘she is the most evil person walking the planet and ruined my life’.

psychology of heartbreakThe problem with this sort of extreme thinking is that not only do we miss out on the myriad other realistic options available to us, but we increase our chances of depression. Black and white thinking leaves us on a cycle of highs and lows because it is very emotionally stimulating when we think this way.

TAKEAWAY TIP: If you can start to spot your extreme thinking, you can start to even out your moods. Watch out for extreme words, such as always, never, the best, the worst. When you catch yourself using such statements, take a moment to look at your thought. Ask yourself, is it realistic? What proof do I have to support this statement?And what might a more balanced thought look like?

You might also want to try a round of CBT therapy which specialises in helping you notice your extreme thoughts (which CBT therapists call ‘cognitive distortions’)  in place of more balanced and useful thinking.

3. You are less able to tell the truth about what has happened then you think.

We all like to think we remember things exactly as they are. And yet research done at the University of California has proven that even those of us with photographic memories don’t remember things perfectly. It seems our minds can easily be fooled into thinking we remember something we actually didn’t and distorting truth.

So it’s bad enough that left to its own devices your brain wants to tell tall tales. What about when we are under a lot of stress, like when a relationship crashes and burns?

Stress hormones will promote your building of negative memories. A very recent study at the Arizona State University showed that the hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, released by the brain when we experience stress, cause us to focus on and build negative memories while ignoring the positive side to our experiences. (The study was, admittedly, only done on women, who in studies are shown to be more likely to experience shock from traumatic experiences).

TAKEAWAY TIP: Part of heartbreak is the inevitable ‘rehashing’ about the relationship to anyone who will listen. Not only does it cause us to re-experience the pain of the breakup, it can become a ‘story’ we are addicted to telling, and one that is scientifically unlikely to even be true. When you hear yourself going through the details of the relationship again in a negative way, try to remember one postive for every negative.

And consider talking to a counsellor and psychotherapist who can support you in telling the story in a way that helps you heal and move on. Sometimes friends, despite best intentions, sympathise and encourage our negativity and righteous indignation and send you on a spiral of upset before you know it.

4. The psychological ‘snowball effect’ can knock you over.

Have you ever been with someone you weren’t sure you were in love with, broke up with them, then suddenly been totally devastated and heartbroken?  

You were probably left wondering, why you were so upset,  even as you were unable to control your sadness.

If so, you’ve been the victim of a ‘psychological snowball’.

Trauma in the present often triggers repressed traumas from your past. Even if you are not consciously aware that these old traumas are being released, you will feel it, via really overwhelming feelings of sadness and despair. The little snowball of heartbreak rolls into a big boulder of a snowball before you know it.

TAKEAWAY TIP: Monitor your emotions. Do they fit the crime? Or are you incredibly depressed over breaking up with someone you only knew for a month? If your emotional response seems a mismatch, then it’s likely you are being triggered.

Try journalling, a great way of creating a relaxed space for the mind to reveal its hidden depths.

Sometimes, if you’re really triggered, it is time to talk to a professional. It’s amazing how sitting in a room with an empathic stranger can have us suddenly unloading experiences we had forgotten happened, as if the very process of committing to seeking help and finding a safe environment acts like a magnet to pull out what is really bothering us. Also, overreaction to relationship breakups can be a sign of Borderline personality disorder, which a professional could spot and help you with. 

5. Heartbreak can trigger psychological shock, a very real condition.

Heartbreak, like any other trauma, can put you into psychological shock, also called ’emotional shock’ and ‘acute stress reaction’.

And emotional shock doesn’t just cause anxiety, fear and a sense of unreality. It also comes with a host of possible physical symptoms, including but not limited to sleeplessness, a racing heart, headaches, stomach upset, muscle tension, and random physical aches and pains (read more in our article 7 Warning Signs of Emotional Shock). So yes, love really can hurt, when we have to let it go and need to move on.

TAKEAWAY TIP: Read up on emotional shock so you can spot the symptoms. And give yourself a break; you really are tired and unwell, it’s not in your head. Again, don’t expect big things of yourself or make big decisions, but focus on good self-care. And drop the deadline to ‘get over it’. Shock comes in cycles, much like bereavement, and it’s best to accept it can take some time to feel better.

Have you experienced any of the above with a breakup? Have something more to say about the psychology of heartbreak? Do share below, we love hearing from you. 

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