When the space between us and another person we love is severed, the enormity of their absence is often all we feel. We can’t eat. We can’t sleep. We can’t focus. We notice all the ways they’re missing from ordinary moments, like mornings, like sleeping, like empty hangers in the closet.
The pain of heartache can be expansive and vast-- beyond what we believe we can handle-- but equally expansive is the space created for growth.
The end of a romantic relationship or longtime partnership is an experience that overwhelms the system, on an emotional and physiological level. Similarly to how we adjust our lives to create a sense of togetherness with our partner, our brains and bodies orient toward the litany of love; it becomes a resource-- like water-- flooding us with oxytocin and dopamine, hormones involved in bonding & pleasure & general “feel good” feelings. When we move through the motions of heartbreak, our brains and bodies follow suit; they are forced to readjust and reorient.
The loss of a love causes the stress hormone, cortisol, to swell in our bodies, the same hormone that surges in situations of survival (fight / flight / freeze). Cortisol can be helpful in short bursts; it allows us to respond to dangerous situations effectively. That said, our bodies are not always the best at differentiating between real and perceived threat. Cortisol floods in response to something like heartache because our system senses the shift as a danger; the lack of love is experienced something like a deficiency, and the release of stress hormones are meant to evoke a response from us that will bring us back to a space of safety where we can relax and connect again. Unfortunately, we can’t outrun heartache the way we might outrun a lion; our system’s way back to safety is gradual and slow, and the stress state in our bodies tends to stay elevated longer because of this.
When our bodies are flooded with cortisol for long amounts of time, we might feel the effects in the form of physical pain, like a tightness in our chest. The sensations of stress in our muscles— the feelings of tense and rigid— leave us achy and exhausted and deflated. An excess of cortisol also redirects blood away from our digestive system and turns it toward our muscles; in response, we may experience stomach problems or loss of appetite, hence why many of us are not often hungry when we’re broken hearted.
Additionally, the same parts of the brain that register pain light up, signaling distress in our system similar to what might happen if we hurt ourselves. In other words, heartbreak registers something like broken bones in the brain.
As a therapist, I spend a lot of time with people’s heartache-- I join them in that space at the bottom where loneliness lives alongside hunger and sadness. Often, one of the hardest parts of heartache is the meaning we make about ourselves when things fall apart. We label ourselves as incapable, we rake through our rolodex of shared memories in search of the moment we said the thing that made it burst; we tell ourselves “I should have been different”; we wonder if we are lovable. Our quest for understanding blooms from the belief that answers will heal us, but ruminating on these kinds of stories starves us and only leaves us dissatisfied. Growth cannot happen when we suffocate its seeds with stories of whether or not we’re good enough. The end of a relationship does not have the power to oppress us in this way.
Instead, it is important to be kind to ourselves: allow our bodies to release through movement; allow ourselves moments of feeling okay; allow ourselves distractions; allow ourselves excitement for the future; allow ourselves the anger, the sadness, the missing and wishing things were different; but above all, allow ourselves compassion as we move through it.
When we’re suffering, self compassion is the salve with the capacity to soothe from the inside out. On a neurobiological level, self compassion helps quiet emotional centers in our brain that are often over activated in times of heartache; it helps lower cortisol levels, and it helps calm our nervous system so that we can return to a space of safety, where our system feels okay.
Self compassion is an opportunity to sit beside ourselves, witnessing the hurt, without feeling the urgency to get rid of it. If you are new to the practice of self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff--one of the leading researchers on self-compassion-- shares her definition along with resources to get started on her website.
Shame preserves pain. Grief yields growth.
When we move through grief with loving-kindness for the parts of ourselves that are hurting or the parts of us that believe something is wrong with us, we allow more space for expansion & transformation. Heartache offers us an opportunity to re-evaluate the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and as writer Joan Didion so brilliantly states, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Creating & reacquainting ourselves with the story of who we are without the other is important; it allows us to step into the space of what is to come.
While it’s important to grieve, we are not required to live there. Distractions are healthy. In the face of heartache, it is important for us to find comfort. Give your brain and body a break by allowing yourself things that feel good to you, that ground you: be in connection with friends or family who will listen and hold space for you; spend time alone doing something you enjoy, even if it’s hard to find that feeling in the moment; go for a walk; treat yourself to something special or sweet; try something new.
In the face of heartache, we can be pretty hard on ourselves; a lot of pressure comes from the question “What do I do?” This question can pin us; it assumes power and control rests in our ability to plan & act at a time when we’re depleted. Instead, it might be helpful to ask the question “What needs to happen next?” This is rooted in gut and heart. It calls for us to be attuned to the present moment, to notice ourselves as we’re held in the palms of the matter at hand. It does not assume right or wrong. Coming back to the question “What needs to happen next?” is the way forward that will lead us back to ourselves.
For those who feel the tension of transition: Sad is not a sign of the wrong choice. Doubt isn’t either, nor lonely, nor regret. These are the growing pains; they let you know you’re doing something important. Choice requires us to grieve what is given up. Often, the movement of grief carries us closer to the life we’re after.
Heartache is hard, but it can also carry you toward your big, open life ahead.
Elizabeth Buckley is a Licensed Professional Counseling Intern & Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate based in Austin (under the supervision of Juliane Taylor Shore LPC-S & LMFT-S.) Her areas of focus include relationships and anxiety + depression in adults and teens under the guidance of a neuroscience-informed lens. Follow her work or book a consult at @eab.therapy.