Do people come to therapy for heartbreak ? All of the time. Endings are painful. Sometimes we need professional support to help us move forward, or to explore why it hurts so much. Some come to therapy to try to understand their patterns of relating, to stop repeating past mistakes or to acquire much needed coping skills. Others seek a space with an unbiased, professional person simply to talk through their sorrow.
Relationships can be tricky. Love can be addictive, like a drug. Love is in fact a drug – of sorts. This is due to hormones released in the brain when we become closely attached to someone or something. Dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in particular are feel good hormones which make us want to repeat behaviours. These hormones are released at elevated levels when we’re in love. For those who experience an addictive type of love, when it is withdrawn, lost or ends, withdrawal symptoms can be powerful. Similar to withdrawal from a powerful drug. This happens due to a drop or depletion of the feel good hormones. In plain English – heartbreak is often a state of devastating emotional loss.
With some heartbreak, depression, regret and loneliness hit like powerful waves. A period of sadness may cloud and absorb our entire sense of being. This often consumes our thoughts and leaves feelings of emptiness. This feeling may overwhelm some of us, seemingly out of nowhere. It may occur some time after the initial event, when we finally realize and accept the magnitude of our loss. Isolation from people and social connection at this time is normal. On the one hand this may inhibit the healing process, on the other it can offer us space and time to reflect and adjust.
What we know
For someone going through withdrawal from love addiction, physical and emotional symptoms can be powerful. A rush of overwhelming fear or extreme pain are the types of shock that are often experienced. But it’s not just “bad or negative ” emotions that can contribute to the condition known as “broken heart syndrome” – it could equally occur or euphoria by the sudden shock of intense, unexpected happiness, such as winning the lottery. Which of us can remember lying awake all night, unable to sleep when we’re newly in love ? Anxiety and excitement are very closely linked
When heartbreak happens, hormone levels such as oxytocin and dopamine drop and are replaced with the stress hormone cortisol. Designed to support your body’s fight-or-flight response, too much cortisol over a period of time contributes to issues such as anxiety, nausea, acne and weight gain. All are unpleasant mental and physical symptoms associated with heartbreak. It affects work, sleep, leisure time and social connection.
The trigger for these frightening and debilitating symptoms – known in the medical profession and some therapeutic professions as stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy – is the body’s sudden, massive release of adrenaline, which can “stun” the bottom half of the heart’s main pumping chamber, in effect paralysing it . This then requires the top portion of the heart chamber to work much harder to compensate.
This also has an effect on the brain. In brain terms, the areas responsible for feeling the physical pain of heartbreak, ‘light up’ in the same way as if you’re actually in pain. It also triggers withdrawal symptoms very similar to those seen in [drug] addiction withdrawal.
A meta-analysis which is one of the most thorough types of research study, revealed that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin. The love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation , that is – enabling us to imagine things that have never been experienced as well as things that do not exist. Future events for example – an imagined wedding or future together. Body image can be affected. All of this science may explain why people’s’ abilities, decision making and behaviours are all over the psychology map when they begin a new relationship.
Research has also shown that while friends and family may be supportive at the beginning of an episode of heartbreak; patience often runs out. A majority of friends may apply their own arbitrary deadline of when they expect healing to have occurred. Some may experience compassion fatigue. Despite being well meaning , invalidating suggestions may be made, – ‘ You need to move on’ or ‘ plenty more fish in the sea’ which can compound the sufferer’s pain, often leading to pushing emotions down rather than expressing them.
Heartbreak is often perceived as a specific event that is time-limited with a myth that healing ‘should’ begin from the day of loss, abandonment or breakup. The reality is that heartbreak is complex , systemic and individual to everyone.
The solution – when to seek help
As we’ve seen, heartbreak can be a big shock to the system. If you’re feeling like the stress, sadness or anger isn’t passing, if you’re having trouble getting back to normal life, feeling stuck or concerned in any way about how you are coping mentally or physically, it may be time to get some extra professional help.
Temptation to get another hit– to call an ex, to plead with them, to remind them about you and the good times – can seem insurmountable. Often all that happens is a rejection or a short lived emotional high that leave us feeling worse than before.
In emotional terms, a bad break-up may plunge you into the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.
The solution can often be a process – talk with a supportive friend, family member, book an appointment with your GP, or seek out a therapist who will listen, create a non judgemental,unbiased, productive space to help steer you through this painful episode. There are a wide range of therapeutic skills and interventions available to support you at this time.
Seeking professional help.
Most people make a complete recovery from the physical effects of acute heartbreak within a few weeks or months. Loss of appetite or insomnia perhaps. The emotional effects, including their toll on our mental health, may last longer which is why seeking professional support can be a healthy and helpful way forward.
Copyright. Jacqueline M. Colligan. August 2022.
Stephanie Ortigue, Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli, Nisa Patel, Chris Frum and James W. Lewis, ‘Neuroimaging of Love: MRI Meta-Analysis Evidence toward New Perspectives in Sexual Medicine’, The Journal of Sexual Medicine, DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.