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Heartache is something that everyone will go through at least once in their lives. One way to describe the pain that they feel in their chest is that it is as if someone’s heart is being stabbed.

Studies have shown that your brain can register the emotional pain of heartbreak in the same way that it can feel physical pain, which is why heartbreak can cause physical pain. However, there are ways to cope with these feelings safely. This article will discuss the following:

  • What heartache is and what it feels like

  • Why heartache hurts

  • The causes of heartache

  • How to manage heartache

  • How to support someone going through heartache

What is heartache and how does it feel to have one?

Heartache (a broken heart) occurs when you are going through intense emotional stress or pain, and describes the stress-induced sensations in your chest. This could be both physical and emotional pain - in fact, feeling emotional pain involves the same brain regions as feeling physical pain, suggesting that the two are connected.

We usually feel heartbroken when we lose someone or something we love or want, and can entail things like a romantic relationship, a friendship, a family member, a pet, a job or opportunity and many others.

Heartbreak can cause a large amount of stress, especially if the loss is a sudden one. This can affect how we feel emotionally and physically, and may take weeks, months, or even years to recover from.

A person with a broken heart would often have episodes of sobbing, rage and despair. They may fail to eat or sleep for days and may also neglect their personal hygiene. Some may repress their feelings so that they do not have to face the reality of their loss, which may cause panic, anxiety and depression a few months later. Others may slip into addiction and rebound relationships to help deal with their broken heart.

Why does it hurt so much?

Some studies show that the brain registers the emotional pain of heartbreak in the same way it registers physical pain, which is why heartbreak may feel like physical pain. These hormones can be everywhere in your body when you are going through loss.

Some studies also show that love can be addictive, due to the hormones the brain releases when we become attached to someone or something. Dopamine and oxytocin, in particular, are hormones that make us feel good and are released at elevated levels when we are in love. When we go through a heartbreak, these hormone levels drop and are replaced with the stress hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol is designed to support the body’s fight-or-flight response, and too much of it over a long period of time can contribute to anxiety, nausea, acne and weight gain - all of which are unpleasant mental and physical symptoms associated with heartbreak.

What are the causes of heartache?

Emotional stressors

  • Grief

  • Fear

  • Extreme anger

  • Surprise

Physical stressors

  • Low blood sugar

  • High fever

  • Stroke

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Significant bleeding

Examples of very common causes of people that experience heartache

  • Learning of the death of a loved one

  • When a friendship / romantic relationship ended

  • When the person you like doesn’t return the same feelings back

  • Bad financial news

  • Legal problems

  • Natural disasters (such as floods and earthquakes)

  • Motor vehicle accidents

  • Exacerbation of a chronic medical illness

  • Newly diagnosed, significant medical condition

  • Surgery

  • Intensive care unit (ICU) stay

  • Use of or withdrawal from illegal drugs

How to manage a broken heart?

Most of the time, a broken heart is just temporary and would resole itself with time. It is completely normal to feel heartache after a stressful event.

However, it is advised to seek urgent medical care if you feel chest pain or difficulty breathing after these stressful events. A broken heart can hugely affect your mental health, and if things are not done to tackle the stress caused by grief, it can eventually lead to heart problems. Here are a few things that you can do to support yourself:

  • Do something that makes you feel motivated or happy

  • Do regular physical activity

  • Connect with nature

  • Talk to someone you trust or find a support system

How to support someone going through heartbreak?

There are many ways to support a person who may be going through heartbreak. Some of these may include being there for the person when they talk to you, understanding that it is a difficult time for them and reminding them that it is normal to feel this way. You could offer them support, such as saying:

  • “Only time can give you the courage to leave someone behind”

  • “When we are no longer able to be with someone that we love, it can hurt tremendously.”

  • “But remember that no one is perfect - you did the best you could.”

  • “It is okay to think about them and feel upset about the loss.”


Researcher - Tiffany


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