You think you’re over it. Your friends are pushing you to get online and start dating again. Or even worse, they try to set you up. But after all this time, are you really over your ex? How can you tell if you’re really over heartbreak?
For you to answer that question, you first have to understand the phases of heartbreak and where you might be stuck. Heartbreak is grief. It’s the most common form of pain and most prevalent because it happens all the time in our lives. We have little heartbreaks all day long.
Remember the time your friend said she would go out to that show with you and then later forgot that she double booked herself and could no longer go. Or that time you thought you were going to get a promotion or lead a project and you were passed over for someone else. These little events of social rejection have the same effect on your body and mind as do the big heartbreaks, such as a romantic break-up, divorce, or death of a loved one. They challenge your sense of self.
According to a study conducted at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, when you are in heartbreak, your brain thinks that your body is hurt. We will often say things like, ”my heart was ripped from my chest” or “ someone just punched me in the stomach.”
The area in the brain that gets activated when you are physically hurt is the same area that gets activated when you suffer social rejection. Called “Broken Heart Syndrome.” And when we are romantically rejected we feel it in our bodies as if punched in the stomach.
And it’s not an easy thing to get over in our society, simply because we don’t recognize it as a significant life trauma. We are taught to get over it quickly, find someone new to make you feel better.
We don’t like to feel sad, so we do everything we can to distract ourselves. And this is where we get stuck.
If we don’t allow ourselves to move through the grief of heartbreak, we are destined to repeat it over and over again.
So where are you in your heartbreak recovery?
The 6 Stages of Heartbreak
- Shock – In the moments after being blindsided by a breakup, your heart rate might drop, suggests research in Psychological Science that looked at people’s heart rates following a social rejection they didn’t see coming.
- Trauma – Once the shock subsides, major emotional stress sets in (What did I do wrong? Am I going to be alone forever? Is it time to start adopting cats?). That stress can ramp up your sympathetic nervous system, which also leads to rising cortisol and inflammation levels. Your sleep, digestion, and immunity might also suffer (you’re up all night, have no appetite and seem to be catching a cold every other day).
- Pain. You feel like you’re in physical pain. That’s because the brain regions that process the pain of social rejection or loss also treat physical aches, according to research in Current Directions in Psychological Science. You might experience neck ache, headache, overall physical malaise.
- Anger – You’re not thinking straight (waiting in the conference room for the weekly Thursday meeting—but it’s only Tuesday), and you’re more impulsive than usual. Critical thinking skills and self-control both decline when feeling rejected socially, according to research. You might be compelled to start eating tubs of Haagen Das or decide to make red wine your new best friend.
- Denial – You swore you wouldn’t, but you look at a picture of the two of you or scroll through their Facebook feed. Your inner voice says, ”If only…” The areas of your brain that show increased activity when you’re high or craving drugs, light up in response to their image. According to research in the Journal of Neurophysiology, this reveals that you’re still powerfully drawn to them. You need that hit of oxytocin and dopamine to make you feel like you’re still in love. But at the same time, your brain is trying to adjust your behavior and make you see that it’s finally over. It’s time to unfollow them.
- Isolation – At first, nothing appeals to you less than going out to a club or being social. You can’t stand the thought of talking to anyone but the pizza delivery man. Eventually, that fades, and progesterone levels rise when you start to feel lonely. That’s an excellent thing—researchers say the hormone can motivate you to seek out social contact.
Denying the healing process can cause serious problems
It’s essential to allow yourself this journey, as painful as it might be. Why? Because if we don’t let the full range of healing, we get stuck in the heartbreak. Over time, in rare cases, the stressful effects of heartbreak can create heart problems.
In a small study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that emotional distress precipitated severe heart damage in some patients without coronary heart disease. They found that it was possibly due to an exaggerated response in the sympathetic nervous system.
Nobody wants to feel the pain of heartbreak. We are the best distractors when there is a threat of torture. It’s a primal response.
But as we become more conscious of the power of our actions and choices in our lives, we must also start taking responsibility for our recovery. And by allowing the full range of feelings, you can alleviate the profound painful effects caused by your heartbreak pain. Allow yourself to experience it and you’ll find yourself quickly recovering.