6 Mar 2018

What becomes of the broken hearted?

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:09 pm on 6 March 2018

Heartbreak happens to all of us and the pain can have a dramatic impact, physically and emotionally.

Psychologist Guy Winch, author of How to Fix A Broken Heart, says there are ways to "take charge" and recover more quickly from the overwhelming sense of loss.

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Photo: 123RF

Winch says people who experience heartbreak go through a grief response as severe as that which some people go through on the loss of a close relative.

“Yet very few of us would go to work and tell the boss we need a couple of days off because our girlfriend left us.”

It’s not only romantic heartbreak; loss of a cherished pet can have a dramatic impact to the point of symptoms that mimic a heart attack.

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Photo: supplied

The brain reacts to reliving a relationship break-up in much the same way as it does to severe pain.

“We really go through pain that feels almost physical,” he says.  When love is withdrawn, the brain mechanisms activated in the brain are the same as during opioid withdrawal.

“And that would explain what people know in themselves when they’ve been through it – and what they see in people around them when others go through it – is that we become absolutely crazy when our hearts get broken.

"We get desperate, we will do anything to get the person back. Very proud people will find themselves begging and groveling. Someone who’s more reserved will send a hundred texts.”

But don’t trust what your brain is telling you, Winch says.

Humans have evolved to stay safe, and our mind’s job is to make us vividly remember hurtful or dangerous experiences so we don’t do it again.

“Except we actually would like to do it again. We want to be able to fall in love again.”

We have to take charge, he says. Make a list of every way the person disappointed you, was annoying, every compromise you had to make in the relationship that you weren’t happy about, and keep it on your phone.

“When you remember the smile … force yourself to remember the frown.”

It’s not unusual for deep attachments to form with pets, and their death can be a profound loss. Winch says. He gives the example of a dog-owner who’d divorced, his parents had died, and who worked from home. His pet was by his side all day and when he walked around the neighbourhood with his dog everyone knew them.

“When that dog died, his life almost died with him,” Winch says.” There was no more socialising, he walked the streets [and] nobody knew who he was … he was so alone.”

“The connection we form with our pets is significant. They are there for us unconditionally through many, many years of our lives.”

Support from friends is helpful when you’re going through emotional pain, but Winch says their empathy comes with an "expiration date" - there’s an arbitrary point when they think you should be over it.

So for the first little while “sob on their shoulders as much as you want” but remember your friendship is about them as much as you.

“And you have different friends, you can spread the joy there, you don’t have to talk to the same one or two people incessantly.”

People who have a clear sense of why a relationship didn’t work tend to recover more quickly but if your ex can’t tell you clearly just make it up, Winch says.

“Whatever it is that you come up with, come up with something” so you don’t need to ask the question any more. “Because that question is going to hold up your recovery.”

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