Why Your Heart Hurts After A Breakup

Ever wonder why a breakup is so f*ing painful? And why is it that some people suffer for years while others bounce back so quickly?

A 2010 study from the University of California found that taking acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol) can correlate with reduced pain after a breakup. Why might Tylenol help with emotional pain? Because pain, whether inflicted physically or emotionally, functions through the same neural pathways in the brain. Using acetaminophen reduces those neural responses that give us the experience of pain. So yes, figures of speech such as “heartache” and “heartbreak,” are more than melodramatic poeticism.

So, does that mean we just can just pop a Tylenol and wait for the pain to pass? Maybe talking to friends about your ex can help? Psychology Professor at Columbia University, Walter Mischel, would argue that discussing the breakup with friends will only increase depressive symptoms and should be kept to a minimum. So, where to turn next?

In a 2011 experiment, the brain activity of people who had recently experienced an unwanted breakup was monitored via MRI. When the subjects viewed a photograph of their ex-partner and thought about their rejection, the MRI revealed activation of the parts of the brain associated with social and physical pain.

But it also found that showing subjects pictures of someone with whom they were securely attached relieved the pain of their broken hearts! So now we must ask, how do we develop secure attachments so that we too can experience emotional tranquility in the face of a break up?

From the moment you were born you began bonding with the people closest to you. This infant-parent bonding and how well your parents responded to your needs was essential for the development of your physical and mental health. How well you attached during that early period determines how you respond in both relationships and breakups in the future, or basically how secure you are as a human being in and out of relationships with other humans.

People who are securely attached, whose needs were met by caregivers, have the healthiest response to breakups, turning to close friends and family for support, authentically grieving the loss, and being better able to empathize with their partner’s reason for the breakup and therefore responding in a less hostile way. They face the breakup with greater resilience and acceptance, and are less likely to blame themselves for the relationship ending.

People who have an anxious attachment style, whose needs were intermittently met by caregivers, are more likely to react to breakups with hyperactive emotional and physiological distress, feeling a loss of identity, turning to unhealthy coping strategies such as drugs or alcohol, being more prone to jealousy and preoccupation with the ex-partner, and are more likely to try to re-establish the relationship even if it wasn’t a healthy one. This type is more likely to stalk, threaten, or attempt to physically harm their previous partner, and they are more likely to ruminate on negative emotions, be in chronic mourning and prolonged protest and despair, and feel continued attachment to the lost partner, leading to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

Those with avoidant attachment style, whose emotional needs were likely not met by caregivers, tend to turn less to friends and family, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a means of coping, and may attempt to avoid the former partner so much they might change jobs or schools to suppress any reminders of their former relationship. They may show an absence of grief, little protest and despair, and a quick progression to reorganization and detachment, but it may also involve greater self-blame and use of drugs and alcohol to cope, lower motivation to replace the ex-partner with a new partner, and less interest in sex. They also show the poorest emotional adjustment and well-being compared to secure individuals.

But no matter your past or current attachment style, there is still hope! Attachment styles are not rigidly fixed as they incorporate subsequent life experiences and the responses of those close to us. A therapist can help us transform from an insecure to secure attachment through effective therapy, and focusing on and developing long-term friendships and other relationships can help create stability and foster feelings of security, acceptance and connection.

In John Bowlby’s 1980 book Attachment and Loss he reports that reactions to the loss of a relationship progress through three stages: protest, often involving crying, anger, disbelief and attempts to re-establish contact; despair and sadness; and eventually, the reorganization of one’s attachment hierarchy which includes upgrading new or existing partners and downgrading and detaching from ex-partners.

Breakups hurt a whole f*ing lot, but according to some scientists, focusing on people we have established healthy relationships with, not looking at an ex on social media, and popping some acetaminophen every now and then might help. If you’re not able to get past your breakup, are abusing drugs and alcohol, feel you’ve a lost sense of identity, or like you’re chronically mourning, finding a therapist to help you start working on how you attach can lead you to a full recovery.

Researchers Tashiro and Frazier found that after a romantic breakup, some people reported a lot of positive growth, such as greater self-confidence and independence, better relationship-maintenance behaviors such as improved communication, an improved ability to cultivate stronger relationships with friends and family, greater focus on school or work, and improved expectations of future romantic partners. Post breakup growth was greatest in those who attributed the cause of the breakup to external factors rather than to themselves. Let’s be those people.

So celebrate the relationships you have, surround yourself with photos of people who love you and are always there for you, dive into the meaning and personal growth that has come out of this breakup without over-talking about it, and know that the pain you feel is real, and it really sucks, but it will come to an end. Don’t dwell on who lies at fault for the breakup, get your butt to therapy if you need it, and if you can’t bear the temporary pain of rejection in your heart, keep some Tylenol handy just in case!


Lauren Brim, author of The New Rules of Sex, and sex coach at www.LaurenBrim.com