In Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey by Florence Williams the main perspective involves “the physicality of loss”—in the author’s case, caused by divorce after a 25-year marriage. “I was shedding weight I didn’t want to lose, barely sleeping, and my pancreas suddenly stopped producing enough insulin,” states Williams. “I was tipping into diabetes. My body felt like it was plugged into a faulty electrical socket” (Los Angeles Times).
What else motivated Williams to delve deeply into the research about this level of heartbreak? What did she find out? From The Atlantic: “I wanted to know why we feel so operatically sad when a romantic attachment dissolves. What I discovered is that love changes us so deeply—at a physiological level—that when it’s lost, we hurt more than if we had never loved at all.”
More info from a Publishers Weekly review excerpt: “She cites studies showing divorce to be a greater health risk than smoking; hears about experiments on monogamous prairie voles, in which those separated from their partners produce more stress hormones; and learns about ‘broken-heart syndrome,’ the symptoms of which are similar to a heart attack.”
Read her NPR interview recap at this link.
Selected Quotes from Heartbreak
Feeling rejected in this way increases blood pressure and raises cortisol levels while “reducing feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence.”
If you place someone who has recently suffered heartbreak in a scanner, parts of the brain light up that are very closely related to the parts that fire after receiving a burn or an electrical shock.
As with some people who suffer decades of complicated grief over the death of a loved one, some people really can’t pick themselves back up after heartbreak.
…(M)oving around can help prevent depression, as well as a host of arterial and metabolic woes. As blood pumps and new neuronal growth factors flow, we become more creative, more self-aware, more ourselves.
In one study, people who more quickly associated negative words with their exes were less depressed and felt better faster.
To claw my way through heartbreak, I would try to awe my way through it. I knew one place to find it: outside.
Our task-focused frontal cortex appears to quiet down when we are outside while other parts of the brain, perhaps those associated with empathy and creativity, power up.