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Heartbroken? There's a scientific reason why breaking up feels so rotten

Lollipop hearts on a pink floor
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When her husband left her after more than 25 years together, science writer Florence Williams says her body felt like it had been plugged into a faulty electrical socket.

"I can almost describe it like a brain injury," she says. "I wasn't sleeping at all. I felt really agitated."

Williams wanted to understand her physical reaction to the breakup, so she began speaking to scientists in the U.S. and England about the connection between emotional and physical pain. Her new book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, investigates the ways in which extreme emotional pain can impact the heart, the digestive and immune systems, and more.

Williams notes that falling in love actually stimulates the parts of the brain responsible for producing stress hormones — perhaps as a way to prepare for heartbreak. The brain creates these stress hormones, she says, "so that when our partner leaves or sort of disappears, we get so agitated that we are motivated to go find them or feel so grateful when they come back." In other words, we're biologically primed from the start to feel stress when a relationship ends.

Feeling untethered, Williams went to therapy, tried psychedelics (in a therapeutic setting), traveled on solo adventures and ventured back into dating in an effort to heal.

Williams, who raised two children with her ex-husband, hadn't been single at all in her adult life. "I met him when I was 18, so I was not yet fully baked as a human being," she says. After the pain subsided, she saw singledom as an opportunity for self-discovery.

"We [humans] are very adaptable people," she says. "Now I love being alone. I love it."


Interview highlights

<em>Heartbreak,</em> by Florence Williams
/ W. W. Norton
/
WW Norton
<em>Heartbreak,</em> by Florence Williams

On what happened in her marriage

The relationship with the man who would become my husband started when I was 18 years old on — literally — my first day of college. Seven years later, we got married, so we were together actually a total of 32 years, or my entire adult life. I guess the start of the dissolution came one evening before friends were coming to dinner. He handed me his phone to look at an email from his brother. Only there was a different email on his phone, and it was a love note to another woman. I would say that was probably the worst night of my life. I was in the middle of reading the email when the friends walked in the front door, so I had to kind of plaster a smile on my face and get through this dinner before I was able to investigate a little bit further. ...

I started having physical symptoms right away. From the moment I read that email, I felt like something really repositioned itself ... in my body. And that's partly the release of these stress hormones.

On how partnered people's bodies sync up

Your bodies really co-regulate when you live in such close proximity and in an intimate way with someone. Your heartbeats actually regulate when you're asleep. Your cortisol levels line up — your morning and evening cortisol levels. Your respiration rates sometimes align. There are a lot of studies showing that when you put a couple in a brain scanner and you give them a task, their brain waves actually sync up in the same way. Whereas if you put one of those people in a scanner with someone they don't know very well, that doesn't happen.

On what happens physiologically when a partner leaves

Your brain and your body really notice it, on a subconscious level. Your cortisol levels go way up. They're sort of like, "Where's my mate? Where's this person who I'm used to regulating with? Something's wrong." These alarm systems go off in your body, because your nervous system suddenly feels like it's under threat because you're alone. Humans are such social animals ... that when we're alone — in a deeply evolved sense — we don't feel safe. We know that to be alone in the jungle means we're more likely to face a predator. We're more likely to get injured. Eventually we can get comfortable with [being alone], but when there's a dramatic shift, we do feel on some level unsafe.

On scientists studying the brains of heartbroken people

In the field of psychology, researchers have been looking at divorce and heartbreak in some interesting ways. Some researchers are putting heartbroken people or dumped people in brain scanners and seeing what's going on with their brain waves. ... Now there are scientists who are looking at ... loneliness. We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for a number of diseases and for early death, and we also know that divorce and relationship loss is considered a major risk factor for loneliness.

On takotsubo cardiomyopathy — a literal heartbreak disease

There was something about the traumatic events of that earthquake that released so many stress hormones that people's hearts were actually kind of stunned.

We used to think that heartbreak was just a metaphor, but people started noticing it after a big earthquake in Japan [in 2011] that a lot of people were coming into the hospital with heart attacks. These weren't people who had risk factors for heart attacks. They didn't have any blocked arteries when their hearts were imaged. There were no signs of blockages or plaque breaking free. There was something about the traumatic events of that earthquake that released so many stress hormones that people's hearts were actually kind of stunned. The [heart] changed shape so that there was a lobe that was distended and not able to pump very effectively. ... [This condition was called takotsubo cardiomyopathy.]

Now we know that takotsubo rates increase after natural disasters. They're especially common in postmenopausal women who have suffered a big emotional blow. We see it in women whose spouses have died. We see it in women whose pets have died. There are some examples of men showing up with takotsubo after their sports teams are defeated if they're very, very invested in their soccer teams, especially. [Takotsubo] is only about 5% of all heart attacks. But we now know that there is this clear emotional link between what's happened in [a person's] life and what's happening in [their] heart.

On doing psychedelics with a therapist to work through her heartbreak

Florence Williams' previous books include <em>Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History</em> and <em>The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.</em>
Casie Zalud / W. W. Norton
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WW Norton
Florence Williams' previous books include <em>Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History</em> and <em>The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.</em>

I was having trouble letting go of who I was in the marriage, letting go of the marriage, letting go of my identity. And I was so afraid of the future. During these psychedelic trips, I lost my sense of self. I felt like I was a bead in a bead curtain, like I was a molecule in outer space and everyone else was a molecule of the same size. I couldn't tell which molecule was me and which was someone else. I had this clear revelation that all our emotions are just molecules. It's so funny that we take them so seriously. ... Sure enough, by the end of the session, I really did feel less afraid. My emotions were less acute, and I felt like I was ready to be on my own.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Malaka Gharib adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.