When a person has a broken heart, it is important that they take care of themselves. Simply remembering to eat and drink enough throughout the day and talking to others when possible are important steps in taking care of oneself.
Sometimes, however, a broken heart is not healable with self-care. In these instances, a person may wish to speak with a mental health professional.
This article discusses self-care for a broken heart and when to contact a professional for help.
A broken heart occurs when a person experiences loss. Most often, people use this phrase to describe how someone feels after the breakdown of a romantic relationship.
However, this is not the only cause of a broken heart. A person may also experience similar feelings after:
- the death of a family member
- a friendship ending
- the loss of a job or opportunity
- child loss or infertility
- the loss of a pet
- any other loss that affects a person’s emotional well-being
Experiencing these events is very stressful, particularly if the loss happens unexpectedly.
The American Psychological Association detail some negative physical and emotional effects of stress. Specifically, they say that this stress may result in:
Following a breakup or the loss of a loved one, a person should prioritize self-care. Self-care could involve making lifestyle, dietary, or mental adjustments.
- staying hydrated
- getting at least 8 hours of sleep but not sleeping too much
- eating a balanced diet that is rich in nutrients
- avoiding alcohol and caffeine
- increasing their amount of physical activity each day, if possible
- promoting relaxation using breathing techniques
- reducing and avoiding stress, if possible
Because a person may experience intense stress with a broken heart, it is important that they surround themselves with people they love and take part in activities they enjoy.
The American Heart Association (AHA) suggest that people may feel better after:
- engaging in enjoyable activities for as little as 10–15 minutes at a time
- taking time out of the day for meditation or yoga
- playing with children or a pet
- exercising or engaging in physical activity, from gardening to running
Also, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommend trying one or more of the following to help manage anxiety and stress:
- volunteering or getting involved in charitable work
- accepting that a person cannot control everything
- counting to 10 when feeling overwhelmed
- exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep
- doing or watching something that makes the person laugh
- taking time out of the day to do enjoyable things
Experiencing the loss of a relationship due to a breakup or death is traumatic. People will likely feel strong emotions immediately following this trauma.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these reactions are intense and can last for several weeks or months.
It is normal for a person with trauma to experience symptoms such as:
- continually thinking about what happened
- feelings of anxiety, anger, or sadness
- difficulty sleeping
The intensity of what a person feels will typically lessen over time. However, in some instances, these feelings may grow in intensity and make a person feel worse.
When this happens, it is important that they speak with a doctor or other mental health professional. Without this help, these emotions can develop into depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and other psychiatric conditions.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major life changes that cause trauma and stress can also trigger depression.
Symptoms of depression include:
- persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness
- a loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies
- changes in appetite
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- sleep disturbances, such as difficulty sleeping, waking too early, or sleeping too much
- suicidal thoughts or behaviors
The National Institute of Mental Health also cite stressful and negative life events as potential risk factors for anxiety disorders.
People with general anxiety disorder may experience:
- feeling on edge
- difficulty falling or staying asleep
- difficulty concentrating
Other psychiatric conditions
One 2015 study suggests that if a person’s loved one dies suddenly or unexpectedly, they may have a greater chance of developing a psychiatric condition.
- panic disorder
- social phobia
- alcohol dependency
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- dysthymia, a chronic form of major depression
A broken heart may not only increase the chance of depression or anxiety. Emotional distress and grief may also cause other health conditions.
Some of these include:
Broken Heart Syndrome
A person may experience broken heart syndrome after experiencing a traumatic loss. This happens when a traumatic event causes the body to release a surge of adrenaline. The effects of this adrenaline surge may reverse within 1–2 weeks.
There are several potential triggers of broken heart syndrome, and these include both emotional and physical stressors.
Some triggers of broken heart syndrome include:
- extreme anger
- significant blood loss
The symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack, and a person may experience:
- pain in the chest
- difficulty breathing
Complications of broken heart syndrome
In some cases, this surge of adrenaline can temporarily weaken the heart muscle and cause:
- heart rhythm abnormalities
- congestive heart failure
- low blood pressure
In a 2016 study, researchers found that the effect of heartbreak can elicit a level of withdrawal similar to weaning off of an addictive drug.
The withdrawal symptoms a person may feel after a breakup include:
- appetite loss
- binge eating
- chronic loneliness
Complicated grief is a condition wherein a person constantly ruminates about the death of a loved one. They also go to great lengths to avoid events or things that remind them of that loss. It affects roughly 7% of bereaved individuals.
Complicated grief can lead to:
- significant sleep disturbances
- difficulty with relationships or work activities
- substance misuse or dependency
- suicidal thoughts
Stress can manifest in all sorts of ways, with people experiencing a range of different symptoms.
According to the American Psychological Association, stress can cause:
- muscle tension
- increases in cortisol and other hormones
- potential damage to the cardiovascular system and a temporary increase in blood pressure
- respiratory issues, such as asthma attacks
If a person feels overwhelmed with negative emotions, they may wish to consider talking with a healthcare professional. This can be a doctor or a mental health specialist.
A person should speak with their doctor or call 911 immediately if they experience any symptoms of a heart attack or are feeling suicidal.
If a person feels that their depression or grief is getting worse and they have no one to turn to, they can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Sudden and intense emotional pain from a broken heart can drastically change how a person feels. This can result in them experiencing extreme sadness and grief. These emotions may put them off eating or sleeping and take away their enjoyment of life.
Taking steps to take care of oneself can help a person ease that emotional pain until it passes.
To ease the pain of a broken heart, a person should try to surround themselves with people they love and try to keep up with the hobbies or activities that once brought them joy.
The pain should eventually pass, even if it sometimes feels as though it will not.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.