The Biology of a Broken Heart-and How to Bounce Back

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Many of us have been there: hearing the words, “It's not you, it's me,” or, “Maybe we should just be friends.” Others have dealt with the death of a loved one or role model. And while each end to a relationship is unique (to be sure, a breakup and a lost life are drastically different experiences), one feeling is common: heartbreak. Unfortunately no Band-Aid can heal this one.

Heartbreak Really Does Hurt-The Need-to-Know

Heartbreak is a term used to describe crushing grief, anguish, and distress, often due to the pains and strains of love. The experience of heartbreak can be so intense that some scientists suggest it feels the same as physical pain. In one study, people showed similar brain activity when they viewed a photo of a former love and when they felt extreme heat on their arm.

Heartbreak can be so intense that some scientists suggest it feels the same as physical pain.

In fact, it might even be true that people can die of a broken heart. Early bereavement (the period of mourning after a death) is associated with increased blood pressure and heart rate, which can raise cardiovascular riskHaemodynamic changes during early bereavement: potential contribution to increased cardiovascular risk. Buckley T, Mihalidou AS, Bartrop R, et al. Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney, Australia. Heart, Lung and Circulation, 2011 Feb;20(2):91-8.. Another study of people who recently lost their spouse found the stress involved with mourning upped the risk of dying from a heart attack by 20 to 35 percent. Looks like heartbreak really can hurt the human heart.

Your Action Plan

As studies confirm the biological basis to love, there may eventually be a treatment for heartbreak. Until then, follow these basic techniques for coping with the pain of a lost love. We reached out to Athena Staik, Ph.D., LMFT and Julie S. Lerner, Psy.D. for professional advice on mending a broken heart.

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The Takeaway

There's no denying the pain of a broken heart, but luckily there are ways to cope with one. Whether you're going through a breakup or grieving the loss of a loved one, honesty, compassion, social support, and self-care can go a long way toward easing the pain.

Originally posted December 2011, updated April 2015.