If you recognize these 12 signs, you know what heartbreak feels like

by Isabella Chase | April 5, 2024, 2:19 pm

Your heart can break over many things. Romantic partnerships ending, losing a loved one, moving location, career changes, or issues around your children, friends or family.

The pain of heartbreak can feel so bad, we’ll do virtually anything to avoid going through it. Rebound relationships, developing addictions, creating drama or overworking are common responses.

Often, we try to squash the pain down, only for it to pop out again when we least expect it.

So, as awful as it is, if you’re feeling the pain of heartbreak – well done. You stayed open and made it to the starting line. You can now process your pain and, eventually, it will begin to ease.

Let’s explore the tell-tale signs of heartbreak, the reasons behind them, and how you can help yourself through this difficult time.

1) Complete overwhelm

Maybe you’re where I was the last time my heart broke. On the floor, to be precise. Literally. In complete emotional overload. Unable to connect with my feelings, let alone communicate them.

Associated issues make that overwhelm worse, too. They could be around children or problems with friends and family. Maybe it’s frightening financial, housing or work implications.

Your mind goes into overdrive, and your body is flooded with stress hormones, sending you into survival mode (more on that next).

It’s totally overwhelming, and you’re probably in emotional shock…

2) Emotional shock

This can leave us feeling everything from dissociated and numb to furious and raging. If this sounds like you, you can read more on this and get in-depth help at VeryWellMind.

Put simply, though, if you’re experiencing emotional shock, your flight, fight, freeze response is activated. To your body and brain, your very survival has been threatened by the social loss.

Social loss, such as a romantic break up or the end of a close friendship, triggers us on a deep, primal level. That’s because it’s a serious threat to us, as social/tribal beings who only survive in community.

So, you’ve been flooded by stress hormones and your Sympathetic Nervous System has taken over, disabling your logical, thinking brain on the way.

Remember, at the root of emotional shock is…

3) Feeling frightened

When we’re in survival mode, living in the fight, flight or freeze responses (and the more recently- identified fawn and flop responses too), we’re frightened and feel under threat.

So, if you’re feeling irrational and out of control following heartbreak, remember, you’re not a bad person. That’s the fear talking.

Your aim now is to get your Parasympathetic Nervous System back in the driving seat, so you feel safe again. That will also get your frontal lobes back online, so your thinking brain can kick in.

Here are some starting points to help with this:

  • You can learn about turning off the freeze response in this video from Therapy in a Nutshell.
  • Health and happiness coach Raelan Agle also gives us three evidence-backed strategies for getting out of fight or flight mode.
  • Also, try breathwork to turn on the Parasympathetic Nervous System from Calm with Kyle.
  • In the initial shock of heartbreak, just focus on doing anything you can to make yourself feel safe.
  • Being with pets or people you deeply trust can really help.
  • Spend time in comforting environments and do nurturing activities (for me watching Friendsis associated with comfort and safety!).

4) Dread in your gut

You know the feeling – like there’s a huge stone in your stomach. Or an empty, hollow cave of dread. 

This can come from all the emotions around rejection and social loss.

That dread feeling can also come from having to:

  • sort practical things out,
  • return to places that trigger your emotional pain,
  • see the person the heartbreak is centred on,
  • have difficult conversations with that person,
  • tell people around you about the situation,
  • ask for help (if you find this hard),
  • let people down or change plans because your situation has changed.

As well as this awful gut-wrenching dread, you may develop issues around the heart itself…

5) Broken heart syndrome

Broken heart syndrome is an actual, medical thing. It’s often brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions, including emotional heartbreak. 

Dr. Jasmine Shaikh, MD of MedicineNet tells us that, “A broken heart can lead a condition to that doctors call ‘stress-induced cardio-myopathy’ or ‘Takotsubo myopathy.’ The condition temporarily enlarges a part of your heart.”

According to The Mayo Clinic, those suffering from broken heart syndrome “may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack. Broken heart syndrome affects just part of the heart. It briefly interrupts the way the heart pumps blood.”

That’s extreme, yes, but it does show you the powerful link between emotional heartbreak and physical symptoms.

6) It really, really hurts (like, actually)

It hurts too.

Clinical psychologist Eric Ryden told LiveScience: “The neurobiological effects of heartbreak can reach such heights that it has been likened to that of physical pain (…) such as chest pain and panic attacks.”

So, even if you don’t develop Broken Heart Syndrome, you can still feel a lot of pain and panic around the heart itself in heartbreak.

7) Wanting a fix

An academic study led by psychologist Art Aron, neurologist Lucy Brown, and anthropologist Helen Fisher explains something common that can be part of heartbreak over romantic break-ups. It’s that strong feeling that you need a ‘fix’ of your ex.

Losing the relationship is like suddenly having a drug taken away, and then… the cravings begin.

The way romantic love fires in the brain, lighting up the caudate nucleus, is described not so much as an emotion but as, according to Aron, Brown and Fisher, “a ‘goal-oriented motivational state.’” They go on to explain that, “So as far as brain wiring is concerned, romantic love is the motivation to obtain and retain the object of your affections.”

As Meghan Laslocky, of Greater Good explains, “Nicotine and cocaine follow exactly the same pattern: Try it, dopamine is released, it feels good, and you want more…” She adds, “As far as brain wiring is concerned, when you’re in love, it’s not as if you’re an addict. You are an addict.”

Huh. So Robert Palmer was right – we are addicted to love. And having it suddenly taken away is like going cold turkey.

8) Losing your appetite

… or unconscious overeating and junk food consumption.

These are all signs of heartbreak, as your body battles to find some kind of balance with so much going on in its chemistry and neurology, the mind, and the emotions – as well as triggers everywhere ‘out there’.

The dread in your gut may put you off eating, or the fear you’re running on could cause comfort eating. A lack of self-care could be behind eating junk food, or that too could be a bid for comfort.

Whatever the reason, all these food-related changes can take the body further out of balance.

9) Fatigue/exhaustion

You may be so exhausted by heartbreak that you can’t do anything. Maybe you take to your bed or you struggle with the simplest task.

If so, just be patient with yourself, rest and let others around you know what’s happened so they can support you.

If you’re exhausted because you can’t stop, maybe you’re keeping busy too far. You could be trying to avoid the pain of heartbreak. Find gentle ways to slow down, maybe by watching a movie or taking a mindful walk.

10) Sleep issues

This could look like waking in the night, being unable to sleep or sleeping too much.  

In every case, you’re getting out of rhythm and losing that healthy balance.

If this sounds like you, try:

  • Setting an alarm for bedtime and waking up, then stick to the times.
  • Get a walk or some fresh air before bed to calm and relax you.
  • Try some gentle yoga or stretches before bed.
  • Journalling can help clear your mind before bed.
  • Make sure your bedroom is inviting, cozy and nurturing.

11) Feeling messy and vulnerable… in all kinds of ways

For all the reasons above, we can end up in a huge, messy (often very tearful) emotional mess.

And that’s okay. So long as we’re not burning an ex’s clothes, it’s good to let it out. I encourage you to reach out to a good counsellor or therapist if you need to.

It’s also normal to feel sad and go into our shell to lick our wounds after heartbreak. But if you’re slipping into depression, do reach out for help, too.

12) You’re compassionate, empathetic and wise

Yep, I saved the best until last.

With time, heartbreak is one of life’s best teachers. It helps us learn, grow and mature.

Heartbreak breaks us open into more self-love and more love for others, too.

So, to help you through heartbreak, remember:

  • Eat as well as you can.
  • Exercise sensibly.
  • Create a sleep routine.
  • Try mindfulness, breathwork or meditation.
  • Draw on your support system and accept help.
  • Get out into nature.
  • Find ways to feel safe and nurture yourself.
  • Reach out for professional help if you need it.

Final words:

If you’re deep in the pain of heartbreak right now, I’m sending you a big hug.

Remember, the pain is natural. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, scared by or to push away or shove down. You’re in a very ancient, very human process. Feeling is healing.

And it will get better.

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