Why a Broken Heart Feels Like a Punch in the Gut and What to Do About It

Everyone has been there. A relationship ends, whether through divorce, death, distance or calculated decision, and we are in pain. It hurts. We feel as if our heart was being ruthlessly squeezed and our guts twisted and flayed. Or, there is a sense of stabbing pain in the chest or stomach. And, if we didn’t know better we’d think we were coming down with something, because our whole body hurts, and all we want to do is lie down. This is heartbreak.

A broken heart, feeling hurt by rejection or lovesick for someone out of reach, have long been considered simply metaphors. But today researchers are beginning to discover that physical and emotional pain look an awful lot alike neurologically. It seems our brain doesn’t know the difference between an actual stab in the back or a symbolic one. The same areas of the brain “light up” when we experience both physical and emotional pain.

There also seem to be specific areas of the body connected to specific kinds of emotional pain. And as you might imagine the heart is where we feel the loss of a loved one most severely. The opposite is also true. When we are in the presence of a safe, nurturing loved one, the heart and chest are more relaxed, and breathing and heart rate are slowed, in what is called vagal-parasympathetic activation.  It is the feeling of well-being and comfort we experience when we are with those we love.

So what do we do when we face the inevitable heartache? Here are some simple guidelines to help you through the pain.

1. Be gentle with yourself. Accept that you may need extra sleep, support and nourishing food during this time

2. Get more social support. We are wired for connection with others. Find safe, nurturing people to help you through. Don’t isolate yourself.

3. Let yourself feel it. Some experts believe that if we do not express our painful emotions they may permanently affect our physiology and lead to chronic pain or other physical dysfunction. Journaling, talking to a safe person, counseling, support groups, art, music or physical endeavors may be ways to express and process your feelings. Remember that the only way out of grief is through it. Imagine a tunnel, in the middle it is dark, scary and lonely, but there is light ahead, and if you just keep moving you will reach it.

Winterspring Center for Loss and Grief

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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