Title: Heartbreak: a Personal and Scientific Journey | Author: Florence Williams | 2022
Recently divorced, journalist Florence Williams finds herself dealing with the health effects of heartbreak after twenty five years of marriage. She lost weight, had trouble sleeping, and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In the book, Williams explores the science behind heartbreak. She looks to science to better understand her experience and find out how to fix her broken heart.
As with any book I write my reflections on, this is not meant to forgo reading the book. This piece can’t replace Williams’ witty writing or the feeling one gets as takes you on her journey.
What is Heartbreak?
At its core, the effects of heartbreak on our mind and body manifest as social rejection, grief, trauma, loneliness, and fear. Heartbreak “shows similar neurological fingerprint to physical pain.”
Unlike a loss associated with death of a partner, heartbreak involves rejection. Hence, with heartbreak, we are dealing with “social pain.” And our “neural networks take social pain seriously.” When we go through social rejection, we may also experience fear. This puts our bodies in fight or flight mode.
We know from studies that after a divorce, chances of diseases and death increase. But we now can measure changes in our genetic and cellular makeup as a result of divorce. The emotional states we enter during heartbreak, such as social rejection, can cause inflammation and compromise our immune system.
In short, heartbreak can make us physically sick.
The Value of Social Relationships and Why Break-Ups Hurt
Relationships provide stability. Moreover, we are built for love. Attachment to our partners “drives us to reconnect with our lost partners after brief separation.” It makes us “keep coming back home.” Therefore, love is an adaptive mechanism.
Another advantage, “partners help us maintain a stable-self concept.” Part of what makes heartbreak traumatic is the dismantling of self-identity that goes along with it.
In the book, we learn that romantic relationships are a part of our social connectedness. This refers to how we emotionally and socially feel connected to others. During heartbreak, rejection, detachment, loneliness, and fear, replace the stability and sense of self we get from being in a relationship.
Healing from Heartbreak
An integral part of the book is the author’s quest to find ways to heal her heartbreak. Williams divides her heartbreak recovery agenda into three parts: perspective, calm, and making sense of what happened and finding meaning.
Since Williams has written extensively on healing power of nature, it’s not surprising that nature is one panacea she tries. Nature has a way of making us feel awe. When experiencing nature, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and calm the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).
Nature has the power to heal in four ways. First, by making us feel small, we develop a healthy perspective. Second, nature makes us feel connected to the world. Third, it allows us to put aside day-to-day concerns. Last, we get to feel a presence greater than ourselves.
But in her journey, the author admits that nature can calm you, but it doesn’t do all the work.
Therapy, EMDR*, Ecstasy, and Social Support
Williams tries EMDR, talk therapy, and psychedelics. Although her therapist expands on the wisdom of being alone, she finds herself in rebound sex and relationships. Can rebound relationships help her get over heartbreak?
She cites studies that show the power of oxytocin when it comes to healing our hurt. Whether we produce this neurotransmitter from having a new partner, one thing we learn from her story is that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to healing a heartbreak.
For Williams, social support, nature, purpose, and time paved her path to healing. Testing her biomarkers during her healing process, she uses data to understand what works. We learn that “anger is a necessary step to moving on, as long as you’re not burning the house down.” Or that “negative appraisal”, remembering our ex-partners negatively, “leads to less depression.”
In her own journey, healing means being open to possibilities. She follows this with self-reflection and also scientific measures to assess if her strategies work.
One of my favorite lines from the book is when she changed her perspective about her heartbreak. To understand her situation:
Instead of ‘Why did I get dumped?’ and ‘What do I do now?’ I should have been asking, ‘What am I learning, and what do I want?’…how can I best help others?Heartbreak: A Personal Journey and Scientific Journey | Florence Williams
I was beginning to confront the possibility that after heartbreak, there is no big arrival signpost. Instead of trying so hard to find closure, maybe I needed to work more on becoming a person who didn’t need it quite so badly.Heartbreak: A Personal Journey and Scientific Journey | Florence Williams
It looks as if the future of healing heartbreak will require customizable solutions with biologically measured results. This is what we can work towards. For now, however, it seems that we are already taking important steps to address heartbreak: first, as a society, we are talking about the realities of social pain and heartbreak. Second, in realizing that although we might not be able to see direct physical manifestations of heartbreak pain, we have proof that it’s affecting us, cellularly and genetically.
*Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing