Navigating Heartbreak

All humans desire to love and be loved, so when a love bond is broken, it often carries immense pain and can have devastating effects on the body and psyche. Navigating heartbreak can be made easier with some sound advice and understanding.

Many teachings emphasise the importance of selflove; this isn't a selfish concept, it's an important one ' allowing you to remain strong in yourself even if other objects of your love leave or no longer return your love. Of course, feeling rejected can impact your self-esteem causing you to question yourself and your intrinsic worth. Biological actions occur when you feel rejected in this manner, but there are ways of moving through the experience with a bigger sense of self and a larger capacity for love.

HEARTBREAK

The area in your brain that indicates physical pain, like spilling hot coffee on your hand, also lights up when you're heartbroken. So using words like hurt and pain aren't far off when describing feelings because they correlate to your body as well. Cortisol is a hormone that helps maintain steady blood sugar levels and provides energy to your brain and neuromuscular system. It's also known as the stress hormone and excessive or long-term cortisol secretion has a negative effect on your body. A break up, or rejection, can flood your body with this hormone. While it's great in 'fight or flight' situations, too much is debilitating. To give you the required strength to react to stress, cortisol moves more blood into your muscles causing them to swell. This can cause a stiff neck, headaches and tightening in the chest. Cortisol also diverts blood away from the digestive system and this can cause stomach cramps, diarrhoea or loss of appetite. On-going cortisol production supresses immunity, making you vulnerable to catching bugs or giving in to symptoms of existing conditions. The flow of cortisol may also interfere with healthy sleep patterns and can impact your capacity to make good decisions.

ADDICTED TO LOVE

Numerous studies have explored whether or not love can be an addiction. One thing is for sure is that the chemicals in the brain associated with pleasure are affected in people who are in love ' these are dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin and serotonin. But the major overlap in addiction and being in love occurs where the brain processes dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. All known drugs of abuse stimulate high levels of dopamine and the chemical is linked to other processes of reward, like sexual intercourse and love. This is why experiencing love can feel like a cocaine rush.

Whether in the first rush of falling in love, with its rollercoaster highs and lows and changes in mood and physical well-being, or in love that's lasted which tends to be calmer and more objective, the brain chemicals associated with happiness still get depleted during a break up. This is for two reasons; one is the flooding of cortisol and the other is that the behaviour that leads to the production of dopamine has stopped. A re-adjustment is required for your brain and body to get used to what isn't there anymore.

EATING YOUR HEART OUT

Most movie montages of heartbreak show an ice-cream, pizza or comfort food binge. It makes sense if your brain is missing the reward-creating behaviours, it will want to replace those behaviours with others ' an easy choice is food that's high in sugar and fat content. It does become a negative cycle, however, because the crash and possible guilty emotions after a binge only highlight the need for more comfort and reward. People tend to reach for nostalgic food when they're down or lonely - food grannie made or food you eat at family gatherings. Nostalgic food tends to live in the 'comfort' zone.

Following on from the movie montage, the eating session morphs into a frenetic exercising and self-improvement scenario, where of course the hero emerges looking stunning, toned and very healthy. While that sounds like a great idea, and generally it is because exercise has such good implications for your health and wellbeing, there is a danger of becoming addicted to it. Exercise addiction can be outlined in much the same way as any other addiction; you'll need more and more of the initial activity to get the desired effects such as the exercise high, better self-esteem, reduction of anxiety. Withdrawal happens when you can't get to your workout, and makes you feel anxious, tired and irritable. A lack of control can also be experienced, where you feel compelled to exercise, you think about it all the time and it affects your social and work spaces negatively; it takes up all your time and you stop doing other activities. Or you continue exercising even when you are ill or injured.

LIFE AFTER LOVE

The initial shock and sadness after a break up is hard to ignore. But after a while, you may want to just get on with your life and stop feeling all the emotions. It's exhausting to be sad all the time. It is important, though, not to suppress emotions ' they may demand expression in other ways ' from overeating to lashing out or depression. Allow yourself to feel - acknowledge you're sad or angry and be present with the emotion. Then let it go. Write it down or speak to a friend - talk through your feelings to get them aired and allow your brain the space to file them in a healthy way.

'Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,' says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. Much like getting over an addiction, overcoming heartbreak requires conscious action. When leaving a rehabilitation facility, recovering addicts are often told to change their living space to reflect the change in habits. If you and your ex-partner spent time in your living room, for example, make it look different so you aren't reminded of the times you were there together. The same can be said of most things you did together. But, that's not to say you can't go to your favourite breakfast spot anymore. Rather, go there with other people and forge new memories. Self-nurture is vital. Speak to yourself as if you would another person going through the same thing. Say things like, 'Let's get out of bed and into a great shower; All that sugar you ate must have made you feel sick, let's go for a walk. It'll do you good to get out the house.'

In their book 'How to Mend Your Broken Heart', Paul McKenna and Hugh Willbourn say, 'In heartbreak, there is often a backlog of emotional learning to get through. Do one bit at a time. Your unconscious mind will protect you and give you a rest so you can deal with the next bit. You will learn to step out of the memories, leave them behind, and start a new life.'

BACK ON TRACK

To keep your cortisol levels in check, make healthy choices even on miserable days:

*Swap caffeinated tea for herbal tea - try chamomile, peppermint or ginger to give your digestive tract some gentle treatment.

*Eat raw cacao or dark chocolate (70%) instead of any old chocolate to help reduce cortisol levels. Add nuts for a Vitamin B boost to assist serotonin production.

*Move - yoga is fantastic for stress release and strengthens your body's natural relaxation response. But, if even yoga is a bit much, take a brisk walk to energise your body and mind.

*Ease the pain - the physical pain of heartbreak is real but before reaching for a paracetamol, try these natural pain killers: ginger, turmeric, Capsaicin, Valerian Root, Magnesium or lavender essential oil.

*Get social - it may be the last thing you want to do but being with other people will help you find your balance again. If you can't face any mutual friends, find a group of like-minded people you can hang out with and have new experiences (Google Meet-Up is a great place to start).

*Be kind to yourself - heartbreak is exceptionally hard, so don't expect yourself to get over it and move on. Allow yourself to feel and grieve when the emotions surface.

A key helper is to experience all the emotions you need to and turn your yearning for the other into a yearning for yourself. Learn through the experience of heartbreak to love yourself more and open your heart to the possibility of loving again. Rather than allowing heartbreak to break you, use it to strengthen you and build your capacity for love. Love yourself first and this will enable you to love more fully and healthily. If you were loving the other person as a proxy for what you needed to love inside yourself, then now you will learn to love another person for who they are instead of what they can fulfil in you.

TIP

A cacao ceremony is a great way to begin the healing process of a broken heart. Find one in your area with a simple internet search. It might involve pouring a warm cacao drink saying a prayer of gratitude, then sipping the drink slowly. Raw cacao will elevate your mood while your senses become more heightened. A heart opening meditation combined with some journaling is often also incorporated.

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