Relationships

How to Heal a Broken Heart, According to Therapists

Heartbreak can result in various emotional, mental, and physical consequences. Read on as we uncover what makes heartbreak so painful, what you can expect throughout this process, and expert-recommended coping strategies illuminating the path to healing.

By Alan Deibel, LCPC
Heartbroken woman.

Updated on May 20, 2024

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Heartbreaks are an incredibly emotional experience, with 75% of Americans having endured the pain of a romantic partner ending a long-term relationship with them. In a world where relationships under five years are more likely to fall apart, the ache of separation is a universal human experience.

Break-ups are like a shattered mirror, leaving fragments of the reflection that once formed a whole version of ourselves. The initial shock and disbelief can leave us feeling lost, numb, or deflated.

Yet, as we collect the pieces, hope begins to glimmer through the cracks, guiding us towards a gradual recovery. The once-jagged edges of our pain smooth over with time, revealing a new, more resilient version of ourselves.

Though this journey is anything but straightforward, it’s certainly possible. Read on as we uncover what makes heartbreak so painful, what you can expect throughout this process, and expert-recommended coping strategies illuminating the path to healing.

What Makes Heartbreak So Painful?

Heartbreak is a deeply distressing emotional state following a breakup with a partner or the unfulfilled desire for a romantic connection. It shatters our emotional attachment with our now ex-partner, triggering feelings of loss and inadequacy.

In many cases, the feelings of heartbreak become more overwhelming due to a concept known as unwanted singleness, the state of being unpartnered against one’s wishes. The sudden shift from having a strong desire to remain in a committed relationship and the new experience of being alone or single can lead to profound emotional pain.

Heartbreak can result in various emotional, mental, and physical consequences. Below are some of the common psychological and physiological consequences of breakups.

Psychological Causes of Heartbreak Pain

When we think of heartbreak, we often think of the mental experience of the pain. Here are some more common psychological reasons for the intensity of heartbreak pain.

Heartbreak Disrupts Attachment Bonds

Sudden breakups can shatter the once-familiar emotional connection we shared with an individual. As a result, it can deeply disrupt the attachment bond we created, leading to a loss of trust and security. It shifts our emotional dependence away from our ex-partner, leaving us numb, broken, and full of emotional confusion.

Heartbreak Leads to Feelings of Rejection

It’s natural to experience feelings of rejection and unworthiness following a breakup. Often, individuals who experience a separation will internalize the end of their relationship as a reflection of their inadequacies, causing their self-esteem and self-concept to deteriorate.

Heartbreak Causes Rumination

It’s difficult not to overthink or ruminate over a heartbreak. As you wonder what you could have done differently to change the outcome, you commonly find yourself trapped in a cycle of repetitive and distressing thoughts.

Rumination is incredibly harmful to our minds, as it can lead to heightened levels of emotional distress. One study found that individuals who took longer to recover from a breakup and experienced ongoing pain showed higher rumination levels than those who coped well.

Physiological Causes of Heartbreak Pain

Did you know that emotional heartache can be interpreted by our bodies as physical strain? Here are some more common physiological reasons for the intensity of heartbreak pain.

Heartbreak Causes Physical Pain

Our minds are intimately connected to our bodies. As a result, the emotional pain of heartbreak can result in feelings of physical pain in our bodies. The concept of “pain overlap” suggests that the brain can not distinguish emotional pain from physical pain, causing a raw and visceral reaction to heartbreak.

Heartbreak Induces a Stress Response

The overwhelming nature of heartbreak can be directly linked to heightened stress levels in the body. As a response to emotional turmoil, our brain’s perception of threat or loss activates the body’s “fight or flight” responses, leading to a rise in cortisol levels. As cortisol surges in the blood, it can cause elevated alertness, suppressed immune response, reduced sleep patterns, and so on.

Heartbreak Alters Brain Chemistry

Losing a romantic connection can lead to a drop in pleasure-inducing hormones in our brains, such as dopamine and oxytocin. This sudden absence of “feel-good” hormones can leave us sad, empty, and emotionally detached.

The Four Stages of Healing a Broken Heart

The journey of healing a broken heart unfolds in four distinct stages:

  1. Denial: This phase serves as a buffer against the initial shock of heartbreak, protecting us from the reality of the loss.
  2. Anger (or sadness): As reality sets in, anger or sadness surfaces, which is often directed inwardly (i.e., self-pity, self-doubt, or self-sabotage).
  3. Acceptance: Gradually, the anger subsides and gives way to a phase of relief, where the pain is acknowledged and processed, making room for closure to set in.
  4. Growth: Lastly, we have the growth stage, where we emerge from this experience with a newfound sense of understanding, fostering personal development and resilience.

While navigating through these stages, it’s important to recognize that this journey is not linear. It’s natural to encounter setbacks, spend an extended period in one stage, or experience a mix of fresh emotions along the way.

Healing Timeline: How Long Does It Take?

The journey through heartbreak is highly individual. Since no two relationships are the same, neither will the feelings following the breakup.

Considering the various factors that come into play when it comes to healing from heartbreak, such as attachment style, preferred coping mechanisms, support system, length of relationship, and so on, there is no predetermined duration for healing.

Whether it takes one month or one year, healing is gradual.

According to Grow Therapy licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Christy Barongan, “When clients come to therapy because of a broken heart, I help them conceptualize what they’re going through as a grieving process in which they will experience many feelings that sometimes may feel contradictory. ‘Progress’ will be up and down in that they will likely encounter triggers that bring back memories of the person. I tell them there is no timeline for how long it takes to move on and that they need to be patient with themselves during the healing process.”

Whether it takes one month or one year, healing is gradual.

A Guided Three-Step Journey to Healing After Heartbreak

Research has shown that having a better understanding of your breakup can help individuals improve well-being and lead to better relationship success in the future.

For this reason, we must take the time to begin the healing process on the right foot. Here are three therapist-recommended steps that can help you heal your broken heart.

Step 1: Embrace Reflection and Self-Care

Healthily navigating the grieving process after a relationship ends is essential for emotional healing and personal growth.

At this point, you may be experiencing a raw mix of emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, and perhaps even relief from a hard time. Allowing yourself to experience these feelings without judgment is a powerful tool to help you let go and move forward.

The best way to do this is by embracing reflection and self-care.

Consider the positives as you reflect on the lessons learned from the relationship. Research has shown that focusing on the positive aspects of the break-up can lead to more positive emotions and a healthier perspective on why the relationship ended.

Research has shown that focusing on the positive aspects of the break-up can lead to more positive emotions and a healthier perspective on why the relationship ended.

Writing exercises can be beneficial in this process. By journaling about the factors leading up to the break-up, the actual break-up, and the time right after, you can gain insights and clarity that contribute to your healing journey.

Engaging in practices of self-love and self-compassion are also important during this time. Be mindful of how you speak to yourself and avoid self-blame or negative self-talk as you process your emotions. It also helps to limit social media and focus on real-life connections with friends and family.

Step 2: Nurture Your Well-Being and Connections

As you continue your healing journey, nurturing your well-being and connections becomes essential in reclaiming your sense of self and finding joy in life again.

Lean on your friends and family support group who have your best interests at heart. Reach out to a best friend, a family member, or any other trusted loved one for encouragement and validation. Sometimes, sharing our thoughts can provide valuable insight and perspectives, helping us achieve greater strength and understanding.

One of the greatest benefits of this is building resilience.

According to Grow Therapy licensed mental health counselor Kristian Wilson, “Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges. By embracing setbacks and adapting to them, you’re building resilience. Over time, this resilience strengthens your ability to face adversity with greater ease.”

It’s helpful to discover new hobbies and passions that foster personal growth and a renewed sense of purpose in your own way.

Alongside this, it’s helpful to discover new hobbies and passions that foster personal growth and a renewed sense of purpose in your own way. Whether through reading, engaging in creative outlets, or pursuing new interests, prioritizing your needs is essential during this time.

Step 3: Move Forward With Empowerment and Embrace New Beginnings

Visualizing the future that we desire and setting positive intentions can be an empowering practice that helps guide us forward.

Our mindset is a powerful tool in the face of challenges. Take charge of your life by adapting your mindset to embrace new beginnings. It’s time to consider the end of a relationship as necessary to make room for a fresh start.

Take charge of your life by adapting your mindset to embrace new beginnings. It’s time to consider the end of a relationship as necessary to make room for a fresh start.

We can change our lives in more productive and healthy ways, whether opening ourselves up to meeting new friends or discovering new passions.

When the time is right, exploring new relationships can provide a fresh perspective on love and companionship. Though this step may have challenges, it offers the potential to create new connections and open the doors for meaningful experiences.

Consider testing the waters on dating apps or other platforms when you feel ready to explore new romantic connections.

Discovering Heartache Relief With Therapy

During the tumultuous period of heartbreak, therapy provides the light to guide us toward healing and emotional wellness.

A mental health professional, such as a PsyD, LCSW, or LMHC, has the expertise to provide practical coping strategies and tools to manage the challenges involved in heartbreak. Within this safe and non-judgmental environment, therapy sessions allow individuals to explore the intricacies of their break up, which can help them process emotions, regain control, and discover relief.

Beyond providing immediate post-break-up relief, therapy can help us prepare for our future relationships by enabling us to recognize our patterns, understand our needs, and define what we desire in a healthy romantic relationship.

If you seek additional guidance, podcasts or self-help resources can offer insights and comfort during challenging times.

Takeaways

Healing a broken heart is a complex journey that encompasses emotional, psychological, and physical aspects. While heartbreak brings profound pain, it also offers growth and transformation opportunities.

Wilson states, “Healing is a process with its ups and downs. Embracing setbacks as part of the journey can lead to profound personal growth and transformation. Approach setbacks with patience, self-compassion, and a willingness to learn, and you’ll discover the strength within you to overcome challenges and continue moving forward.”

Healing is a process with its ups and downs. Embracing setbacks as part of the journey can lead to profound personal growth and transformation.

- Kristian Wilson, LMHC

If you feel as though your healing process feels too daunting or prolonged, don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance. Grow Therapy has you covered, offering you access to mental health providers cross the country who accept insurance. Begin your journey today by finding a therapist in your area.

FAQs

  • Heartbreak takes an emotional and physiological toll on us, disrupting our emotional bonds, spiking our stress, and leading to rejection and even loss of identity.

  • There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ healing timeframe for a broken heart. Individual factors such as the length and intensity of the relationship, personal coping skills, and access to support all play a role in this journey.

  • Our capacity to move on from a relationship differs based on factors such as resilience to emotional trauma, coping skills, social support, personal beliefs, and the nature of a relationship. It’s important to avoid comparing our situation to anyone else, as healing is an incredibly complex and personal matter.

  • Healing a broken heart takes time, patience, and self-compassion. It’s important to give yourself time to grieve, seek support from friends and family, prioritize self-care, and consider reaching out for professional guidance if needed.

  • If your distress persists over time, interferes with your daily functioning, or causes you to struggle to manage your emotions, it may be beneficial to seek support. When you’re ready to take the next step, Grow Therapy can help you find a therapist and start your journey to healing.

About the author
Alan Deibel, LCPC

Alan Deibel is a licensed clinical professional counselor with over 12 years of experience who specializes in ADHD, addiction, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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