If you're a human living in the world, you've likely experienced the pain of a broken heart. Perhaps the person you thought was the "one" suddenly decides to exit your life. You might experience physical pain from heartbreak, often known as broken heart syndrome, and your brain can make it worse. That's right, your brain can actually make wading through post-break-up hell even more hellish. Similar to depression, your mind can tell you stories that feel real but aren't necessarily true. And, this is why it takes so long to pick up the piece when your heart is shattered.
When you have a negative experience, the brain imprints it into your mind so you are more cautious — and more likely to avoid the thing that caused you pain — in the future. While this makes sense for learning things like not sticking your hand into a fireplace, it's not so helpful when your heart is broken. "The more painful an experience is, the more our mind will labor to make sure we don’t forget it so we never make that ‘mistake’ again," Guy Winch Ph.D., a psychologist and author, wrote on Psychology Today.
"Given how excruciating heartbreak is, our mind will do everything it can to keep that pain fresh in our minds. [...] If we want to stop hurting and move on we need to know when NOT to trust what our mind tells us." When your suffering from a broken heart, getting out of bed can feel more difficult than moving an object using only your mind. You can take comfort in the fact that you're not alone. And, here's how your brain keeps you mired in a dark and twisty labyrinth instead of helping you move on.
The Mind Is The Enemy Of The Brokenhearted
If healing a broken heart were easy, there wouldn't be eleventy million songs inspired by heart break. A broken heart can flatten even the most strong-willed people. Remember in Season 5 of Gilmore Girls when Lorelai can't get out of bed after Luke breaks up with her? Even if, like Lorelai, you can shake off almost anything, heartbreak can affect your body and brain the same way as a broken bone.
"It turns out that the neural circuits important for emotional distress — feelings of social isolation, grief, jealousy, and shame — have much in common with those responsible for pain following physical injury," the Oregon Health & Science University Brain Institute noted on it's blog. [...] "In a sense then, just as physical pain has a protective function — alerting us to physical injury — emotional pain could warn of social loss or disconnection."
When you're in a downward spiral of spending days in bed watching sad romantic movies on Netflix, not eating (or eating all of the things), neglecting responsibilities and personal hygiene, your brain can keep you down instead of lifting you up. Dr. Winch noted on Psychology Today that your mind might make you think the person who broke your heart is the only one for you and you'll never find love again. It suppresses thoughts of the bad times and highlights all of the good times you're positive you'll never experience again.
Don't Listen To The Voices In Your Head
It's basically the devil on your shoulder telling you that it's a good idea to call or text your ex, kind of Lorelai leaving that message on Luke's answering machine after their break up. She's so mortified once she hangs up the phone that she actually gets out of bed for the first time in days and breaks into Luke's apartment to steal the tape.
You can become obsessed with recounting every single step of the relationship to try to figure out just what went wrong. "Having a clear understanding of why the breakup occurred is actually useful," Winch wrote. "However, few of us get a clear and honest explanation for such things. Trying to get into our ex’s head to understand why things didn’t work out is a rabbit hole."
While Lorelai's humiliation of being caught stealing Luke's answering machine tape is enough to snap her out of her funk, for most of us it's not that easy. I've had countless conversations with friends who can't stop social-media stalking an ex, or driving by their house. Once, after a break up, an ex and I eventually admitted to each other that we had both been driving through the parking lot of one of our regular hangouts to see if the other person was there.
You Can Train Your Brain To Be On Your Side
If you're having trouble resisting the urge to cyber-stalk your ex, new studies suggest that you can actually train your brain to decrease your chances of falling into the post-heartbreak vortex. "Instead of making things worse with a helping of humiliation, the best response to unrequited love might be to train our brains to hold back on actions we might later regret," Ian Sample wrote for the Guardian. Sample reported that Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University, has been exploring the ability of computerized tests to strengthen people’s self-control, so you think twice before sending that text you wish you could take back.
According to Sahakian, training the brain's pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control could help you spend less time wallowing after the end of a relationship. "The frontal lobes exert control in many different situations, whether in a brain-training task or in stopping people ruminating on lost love,” Sahakian, who is the author of a book called Sex, Lies and Brain Scans, told Sample. "It’s like exercising a muscle, and it might stop someone who is heartbroken from repeatedly texting their ex-partner. The brain would have the tools to put a stop to that."
Additionally, Sahakian told science reporter Victoria Allen for Daily Mail, "The thing about love is that it can affect the wrong systems in the brain. However, if that person does not love you any more or has gone off with someone else, that becomes maladaptive." Sahakian added that distraction is key to moving on. So, while staying in bed for the rest of your like might seem like your only option, it's actually better to get up and go out. Seriously, my best friend came over and literally pulled me out of bed during a post-break up wallowing session, and it was exactly what I needed.
Make Yourself A Heartbreak Repair Kit
If you're not ready to get out of bed just yet, Montmorency Tart Cherries recently sent me a heartbreak repair kit that I promptly gave to a friend who just went through a bad break up. Tart cherries have been found to strengthen your heart, which is important during a break up because the stress of a break up can sometimes mimic symptoms of a heart attack, according to The Debrief. Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy, it is thought to be caused by high levels of circulating adrenaline, Dr. Balvinder Wasan, consultant cardiologist at London Bridge Hospital, told The Debrief.
"In the acute phase, people have even been known to die from the condition – making dying of a broken heart not quite the hyperbole it seemed initially," Clare Finney wrote for The Debrief. "But, before you totally freak out, please note that ‘the condition often reverses within a few weeks and heart function returns to normal. Your job is to avoid the other risk factors associated with heart disease."
This is where adding those tart cherries to a heartbreak repair kit can help. According to ChooseCherries.com, "There are more than 50 studies supporting the potential health benefits of Montmorency tart cherries — from inflammation and exercise recovery, to sleep." You'll also want to add a pack of tissues to dry your tears, some items to pamper yourself, and a trash bag to get rid of things that remind you of your ex. If you're not ready to throw those mementos away, tuck it under the bed so it's out of sight, and out of mind.
You also totally have permission to wallow, but remember the best way to heal a broken heart is to get out of your head and out into the world. So, after a few days marathoning Gilmore Girls, make sure you go out and see some people IRL.