Getting over a broken heart

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By Tricia Wanjala

‘I couldn’t sleep for days. I didn’t even have an appetite.’

‘I was numb, unable to feel anything.’

‘There was a heavy, stabbing pain in my chest.’

‘I thought I was going to die.’

What was the problem? These four were all suffering from a broken heart. Many of us have had a similar experience, indeed, one we’d rather forget. Well, in order to do so and move on, it helps to understand what really happens inside us when we experience a broken heart. What are the causes and ramifications of a broken heart? Apart from the obvious that two people disagree in a relationship, what are some of the factors medical science has unearthed? How do you pick up the pieces and actually live to love again?

The individuals quoted above may be viewed as hypochondriacs exaggerating their physical symptoms. Not so, according to recent findings. Dr. Stephen M. Oppenheimer, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University medical school, believes he has identified a part of the brain that links the heart with the emotions. The insular cortex is a small part of the brain where the autonomic nervous system, which controls such functions as breathing and heartbeat, meets the limbic system, which deals with emotions, such as anger, fear, and pleasure. Dr. Oppenheimer found that stimulation of the insular cortex in rats resulted in heart muscle damage similar to that seen in humans with sudden cardiac fibrillation. Stimulation of the insular cortex in humans has also been shown to produce changes in heart rate and blood pressure. These findings show that when one suffers the emotional stresses linked with a broken heart, they may actually experience real physical effects that are akin to illness.

like addiction

But what causes this to take place? Well, when two people fall in love it is like an addiction to a narcotic substance. In his book The Chemistry of Love, Dr. Michael Liebowitz likens the onset of love to the rush of a powerful drug. But like a drug, such love can trigger raging ‘withdrawal symptoms’ if it dies. And it makes little difference whether the love is mere infatuation or the ‘real thing.’ Both can create dizzying highs—and agonizing lows if the relationship ends.

So the actual experience is pretty traumatic. However many can honestly say that looking back, they were able to heal after a broken heart. What helped them cope? Time, is one thing that helps to heal wounds. A realistic view of what has happened also helps. As the book “It’s called Break-up because it’s Broken,” shows, the only way to resolve a broken heart is to ‘Get over it!’ But how? It is so much easier said than done.

Take control

Well, Eleanor Roosevelt said that ‘no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ At some point we have to take back the control that this person had over our happiness. After all, we are the ones who gave it to them. The power lies with us over how long we will continue to be the ‘victim.’ It is thus vital to take charge of our own happiness for one very important reason: Simply put, all life is comprised of energy. According to Einstein’s E=mc 2 theory, we are made of matter which comes from compacted energy. We exude this either as positive or negative energy. If we give in to hopelessness and prolonged negativity from a painful situation, our energy becomes trapped in a self-destructive cycle. The effects on our mental and physical health then begin to become apparent.

This does not mean we mustn’t grieve when our heart has been broken. Remember, it is okay and in fact necessary to grieve at first. Loss of love is a tangible, undeniable loss. One has to allow themselves to feel it, talk about it, cry about it, write about it, in other words — vent. Be angry, be sad, be yourself. This catharsis is vital in order to move on. Being stuck in denial will actually postpone the healing process. Upon completion of this phase, one experiences a gradual release until a point where sometimes they don’t even think about the pain, or the person that caused it. It begins with minutes of forgetting, then hours, then days and eventually months until it finally fades to a distant memory.

The key is to work through the grief and resolve the negative feelings in order to avoid harbouring resentment. This is vital in order to become emotionally healthy and free to embark on a happy, fulfilling relationship. An authority on relationships commented that, “When romantic relationships fail, the closest thing to love is hate. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” This is based on the fact that it takes energy to exude both love and hate. The key to moving on with your life after a failed relationship is to completely turn off the energy flow from there and redirect it to a more productive and positive experience.

Lance Armstrong’s ex-wife, in her book about surviving divorce said that “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” We’ve already seen the importance of venting initially by unburdening our pain to an understanding friend, relative, or therapist. This is very different from beating the skeleton of a dead horse years after the fact. If we keep bringing it up to every friend, acquaintance, neighbour, cousin…it becomes a circular self-defeating track. We end up repeatedly asking questions that have no answers. Therein lies the danger of getting stuck in a negative loop. A key to avoiding resentment is to stop. Just stop rehashing it after all that needs to be said has been said. Switch it off and focus instead on the positive. Whether it is the happy times you once enjoyed, or the feeling of gratitude that this person has helped you to realise that they were not right for you. Be thankful instead, for your freedom to do things that you were previously unable to, to be in control of your own destiny and to grow in ways you could never have grown while you were with them.

Finally, to get over negative feelings, there are many practical steps we can take. High on that list is to get moving or exercise. Medical research has long propounded the benefits and emotional well-being that come from exercise. Those endorphins or feel-good chemicals it releases are real. At any rate being physically fit has a positive effect on one’s self-esteem, and gives one a feeling of being in control of their lives. Get busy with a project, a hobby, an achievement. Get a pedicure, manicure, a haircut, a re-touch. You may feel rotten inside but for goodness sake don’t walk around looking like a train wreck. Our outward appearance has a bearing on our self-respect. Maintaining one’s dignity while undergoing such a potentially humiliating ordeal speeds up the healing process.

It also helps to volunteer and do things for others. Find a worthy cause to get involved in. The act of giving reinforces your energy because it brings back positivity in terms of gratitude. All of this can be summed up as the act of taking back control from the individual who broke your heart and living your life anew.

As the saying goes, “this too shall pass.” It may seem difficult to envision at the time while you are nursing a newly broken heart, but indeed it will pass. The rain clouds will disappear and the sun will shine again, if we let go. Clarissa says what helped her was to “fake it till you make it.” Smile when you don’t feel like it, act like you’ve got it together and put on that brave face until it becomes who you really are. Alain says a big help for him was laughter. “When I’d start to feel really down, I’d put on a comedy from my collection of DVDs.” So go on, turn on that silly slapstick humour. Whether it’s Charlie Chaplin, Redykyulass, Vioja Mahakamani, Chris Rock or Johnny Bravo, whatever makes you laugh — keep some tapes or DVDs handy. The therapeutic effects of laughter are universal and undisputed.

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