When science writer Florence Williams heard such descriptions, she dismissed them as histrionic complaints of relationships gone wrong. But then, after her three-decade partnership ended abruptly, she found herself “adrift in the ocean,” she tells me, facing the same physical suffering as those mourning writers expressed. Her anxiety skyrocketed, she developed diabetes, and she lost weight rapidly.
It turns out Williams’ physical symptoms weren’t all in her head. Emerging scientific data suggests that social rejection — often in the form of heartbreak — can spark a similar firestorm of brain activity as physical pain. People can also experience elevated stress and inflammation after relationships end. If the physiological side effects of rejection and loneliness aren’t resolved within months or years, the symptoms can contribute to diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, and even hasten death.
“Heartbreak is an opportunity.”
But according to Williams, who recently summed up this body of evidence in her new book Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, there are science-backed strategies to counter the negative downstream effects of rejection. People can even emerge from a breakup more open and resilient than ever before.
“Heartbreak is an opportunity,” Williams tells Inverse. “The more you can be open to that opportunity, step out of your comfort zone, and step into ways to accelerate other connections, is highly advised.”
Untethered — When Williams’ 25-year-marriage ended, she was in shock. She was emotionally crushed and reeling on a physiological level. Her nervous system kicked into overdrive, anxiety spiked, blood sugar levels elevated dangerously, and inflammatory blood markers increased — symptoms that lingered months after her initial breakup.
To make sense of her disorienting experience post-divorce, Williams turned to the top scientists who study the effects of love and rejection on the mind and body. She discovered heartbreak can have intense acute, and lasting physiological consequences.
In the immediate aftermath of a heartbreaking event, the body and brain enter fight or flight mode. That’s the body’s evolutionarily embedded threat detection response system. When the brain senses an attack in the environment — a cheating spouse or a loved one’s passing — it subconsciously spurs a cascade of physical symptoms: heart rate quickens, palms sweat, and eyes dilate. These are all signs that a human is primed to face an attack head-on or flee. The immediate hallmark symptoms of fight or flight mode ideally subside within minutes or hours after an attack ends. But in the case of emotional episodes, which often have no clear end in sight, the associated hypervigilance can persist and eventually contribute to chronic stress.
“When we have been rejected by love, it feels very much like being literally abandoned in the jungle by yourself,” Williams says. That’s because, on the neural level, the brain can’t tell the difference between physical or emotional abandonment.
Acute social pain can even temporarily weaken the heart muscle, causing a condition called broken heart syndrome or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy. This puzzling phenomenon was first identified in 1990 in Japan, as people suffered heart attack-like symptoms after a devastating earthquake wrecked their town.
When people feel suddenly alone facing the world due to the loss of a loved one or romantic partnership, the body feels “imperiled,” Williams explains.
In the wake of social loss or rejection, people often become increasingly agitated and suspicious of strangers. They have trouble regulating their impulses, finding it harder to moderate their consumption of things like alcohol and sugar. Romantic grief can cause a sense of “cosmic unease,” Williams describes, ultimately feeling neither calm nor safe.
“Heartbreak is an emotional trauma that really gets to the core of your identity and makes it hard to function the way you need to,” Williams says. “It’s really important to try to heal quickly.”
Lasting Loneliness — Heartbreak —and its induced loneliness— can also jeopardize physical health over the long term. A growing body of evidence from animal and human studies suggests loneliness is linked with myriad negative outcomes: reduced mental health, increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and premature death.
“Humans aren’t optimally designed to be alone.”
One reason for these dire outcomes comes down to our cells. On a cellular level, our bodies respond to rejection by pumping out more inflammatory cytokines and cortisol while down-regulating natural killer immune cells that fight viruses. That's why people who are chronically lonely, for whom this dysfunction doesn't resolve after months or years, are more likely to die younger. They're more likely to suffer from a range of chronic diseases that are driven by inflammation.
“Humans aren’t optimally designed to be alone,” Williams says. “We know, even on a cellular level, that there is safety in numbers.”
“There is an urgency to recovering from heartbreak and grief,” Williams asserts. “Because if we don’t, we are gonna get sick.”
Social Pain in the Brain — Over the past few decades, brain scanning technology has given scientists a glimpse of how love and rejection light up the brain.
In one 2010 study, researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology to map the neural activity of people who were happily in love and those who were heartbroken. The scans showed romantic love activates the caudate nucleus via a flood of dopamine. Brain areas associated with gains and losses, as well as craving and emotion regulation, were active in this loved-up state, too. Both rejected and happily in love participants had elevated brain activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), suggesting that reward and survival brain responses are involved in romantic passion.
The findings outline a brain network related to a “naturally occurring, emotionally chaotic, motivational state” during love and heartbreak that may have value for survival and reproduction, namely to win back a mate, the study’s authors write.
Another study published in 2011 builds off this brain data. In this experiment, some recently rejected participants viewed photos of their ex-partners and either received a painful (but tolerable) stimulation similar to holding a very hot cup of coffee or received a non-painful, warm stimulation— all while hooked up to an fMRI machine. Scientists found that social and physical pain appear to be rooted in the same areas of the brain: the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula.
“On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break-up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain. But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought.”
Bouncing Back — However painful, heartbreak and the loneliness it can induce may be crucial to our survival.
Some scientists even suggest loneliness is the social equivalent of physical pain, hunger, and thirst. It appears that the pain of social disconnection and the hunger and thirst for social connection motivates people to form and maintain social ties necessary for the survival of their genes. It’s like a “common neural alarm system” designed to prevent potential negative consequences caused by social loss.
Williams, who has experienced some surprising upsides after her marriage ended, says heartbreak can prompt people to reach out and form new connections that are vital for well-being. Social pain can make people more attuned to art, beauty, nature, and new experiences, as well as more resilient to hardship in the future.
“This kind of suffering can help us open up our hearts, become more empathetic to others and their suffering, and make us a little more vulnerable in a way that can make our relationships stronger with the people who are still in our lives,” Williams says.
Ultimately, there are no quick fixes for a broken heart. But, using the recovery tactics below, it is possible to move forward on the path to healing.
Three science-based strategies to navigate a broken heart:
- Face, don’t flee from emotions: While it might feel good in the moment to avoid the emotional pain of a breakup, Williams encourages people to confront their feelings, be open about them, and express them. “In our culture, we're not very good at sort of living with big feelings,” she says. But doing so, and sharing them with others, can make people feel less alone in their experience.
- Calm down and connect: No healing can happen while people are still stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Breaking the cycle of hypervigilance and calming the nervous system is key to processing and healing from social loss. One way to do this is to learn to be more open. Getting outside in nature, moving your body, or connecting with art, beauty, and feeling awe can help strengthen the openness muscle.
- Search for Meaning: The antidote to loneliness is not necessarily hanging out with lots of other people, Williams explains. “It is finding a sense of purpose and meaning,” she says. Then ideally, that would also lead to more connections with other people.