How To Mend Your Broken Heart

Romantic rejection is one of the most common (and painful) human experiences. Here, we take a scientific look at how it affects your thoughts and behaviors — and how to speed up the healing process.

By Theo Pauline Nestor

n the quest to find lasting love, everyone risks rejection at some point. And, for that reason, very few people make it through life without knowing the heartbreak of unrequited love. In fact, most of us won’t even make it through college without breaking someone’s heart or feeling the sting of rejection ourselves. According to a study of American college
When you’re happily in love, everything is fine.
students published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93% of both male and female respondents said they’d been rejected by someone they loved passionately because their feelings weren’t reciprocated, while 95% had rejected someone who professed being deeply in love with them for the same reason. And, regardless of whether the subject was on the giving or receiving end of the rejection, all participants reported feelings of guilt, awkwardness and difficulty moving past the experience emotionally.

“And these are college students; most of them have another 40 years or so to go!” exclaims Dr. Helen Fisher, Chief Scientific Advisor for, author of Why Him? Why Her? Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type and one of the authors of the study entitled “Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love,” which was recently published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. “This just shows how pervasive the experience of romantic rejection is and how far-reaching the results of this study are. When you’re happily in love, everything is fine. But when things go wrong, everybody around you becomes affected.”

Being romantically rejected can make you feel like no one else has ever known such suffering — but, as Dr. Fisher points out, heartbreak really is a universal experience: “Around the world, people suffer from rejection when it comes to love. We have love stories going back to Shakespeare and the Greeks; unrequited love as a subject has fueled stories, plays, legends and poetry for centuries. The brain system for romantic love is one of the most powerful ones that ever evolved.” But scientists are just now getting an understanding of how this brain chemistry works. “I always thought love was an emotion or series of emotions, but these brain pathways are way below the emotional area,” Dr. Fisher explains. “Wanting, for example, is part a motivation system within us. But romantic love is a primitive drive in humans.”

How your brain reacts to the breakup
To further investigate the overall effects of romantic rejection, Dr. Fisher and her colleagues recruited a group of men and women who reported having been recently dumped by their partners to participate in a study. Although the duration of time that had passed since each individual’s breakup varied (the average was 63 days), all of the participants reported that they were still passionately in love with their exes. Indeed, all had “yearned for the rejecter to return to them and reestablish emotional union” and all had experienced a “lack of emotional control on a regular basis since the initial breakup.” The participants’ behaviors that demonstrated this loss of emotional control included “inappropriate phoning, writing or emailing, pleading for reconciliation, sobbing for hours, drinking too much, and/or making dramatic entrances and exits into the rejecter’s home, place of work or social space to express anger, despair or passionate love.” If you’ve ever had your heart broken, does any of this sound familiar?

Each participant was asked to recall memories associated with his or her ex while viewing the ex’s photo for a set period of time; during these sessions, the researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the participants’ brains. These scans revealed brain activity in the areas associated with nicotine and cocaine addiction, physical pain — as well as the area associated with romantic love. “So when you’re going through a breakup,” Dr. Fisher says, “you’re feeling romantic love, you’re in physical pain and you’re in a state of constant craving. That’s a very bad combination for getting to work on time!” Brain activity was also detected in the areas associated with assessing gains and losses and making decisions regarding appropriate behavior. “After being dumped,” says Dr. Fisher, “people work very hard at building a strategy to win the other person back.”

The two phases of heartbreak
The study observed that individuals going through a breakup typically experience two general
Focus on finding positive distractions that make you feel productive.
phases that mirror those that attachment experts had previously recognized children experience while separated from a parent: protest and despair.

“Take a puppy, for example,” offers Dr. Fisher. “Put it in the kitchen away from its mother and shut the door. The first stage the puppy experiences is a full-on protest: yelping, barking, and hurling itself at the door. After awhile, it ceases all protest, falls into a corner and gives up in despair. This is very similar to the phases people go through with breakups. At first, the rejected individual is working every angle to win the other person back and fighting off accepting the truth of the breakup, but eventually — if the rejected party receives no encouragement — he or she will be resigned to despair.”

Why staying in touch is a mistake
Most people who’ve just been dumped prefer the idea of “staying friends” with the person who’s just tossed them aside than embracing the “no contact” rule, primarily because they’re unwilling to completely let go of the relationship. But Dr. Fisher’s research demonstrates that this approach only prolongs the agony associated with the breakup. “We can say that rejection in love is an addiction,” Dr. Fisher asserts, adding that because of this correlation, “it needs to be treated as an addiction. If you’re trying to quit smoking, you don’t keep a pack of cigarettes by the bed.”

Six tips to speed up the healing process:
1. Treat the breakup as you would an addiction. Follow Dr. Fisher’s suggestion: “Don’t call. Throw out the cards and letters, and don’t write. Don’t be near the other person.”

2. Remember, time does heal all wounds. Science now backs up what your mother always told you: it does get better. “We were surprised to find that the rejected person experienced less attachment as time went by — that the pain of the breakup steadily decreased as the person had less interaction with the ex,” Dr. Fisher says.

3. Try to calculate what went wrong rather than ruminating. Think about what you’ve learned from the relationship and what you’re going to do differently in the future. “Thinking about it as a problem that needs solving actually alleviates depression in the brain,” explains Dr. Fisher. For example: one female subject called back the next day to say that her participation in the study had helped her; of this, Dr. Fisher remarked: “I think the reason it helped is that she was doing something. Taking part in the study helped her because it enabled her to focus on what went wrong, what she gained and what she lost, and how she’d do things differently in the future. It forced her to analyze what had happened.”

4. Do not let yourself wallow. Get up and get going, suggests Dr. Fisher, because “there’s someone camping in your head, you’ve got to get them out!” Focus on finding positive distractions that make you feel productive instead.

5. Spend time with family and old friends — people who trigger feelings of attachment for you. Getting in touch with these feelings of attachment will help fill the hole left by the person who rejected you.

6. Drive up your dopamine production by trying new activities. “Go out and learn a new sport or head to a museum you’ve never been to before,” suggests Dr. Fisher. Novel experiences stimulate dopamine activity in the brain, which makes you feel better.

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine.

Interested in taking Dr. Helen Fisher’s personality test? Visit today!

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