The anatomy of heartbreak

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Florence Williams, science writer and author of “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey,” offers answers as to why heartbreak hurts so much. Photo by Casie Zalud.

Much has been written about the wonders of love, but when love is lost and the heart is broken, the breakup can be debilitating. Romantic rejection can feel like a literal punch to the gut; a surge of anxiety consumes the body, our sense of self is called into question, and we even tell ourselves that we are unlovable.

Research shows that heartbreak has significant physiological and psychological impacts. Stress hormones — cortisol in particular — affect eating, sleeping, and even breathing. High levels of stress can affect the production of insulin, cause inflamation, and compromise the immune system. Studies reveal that divorced people suffer from not only increased fear and anxiety, but are significantly more at risk for chronic diseases and even early death. 

Florence Williams. Photo by Casie Zalud.

What makes our bodies react so intensely to breakups and lost love, how do we heal, and how long should this take? 

Jonathan Bastian speaks to Florence Williams, science writer and author of “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey,” who provides her personal perspective on heartbreak after her 25-year marriage ended in divorce. The unexpected toll of the experience and her inability to move on spurred her to delve further into what is known and not known about falling out of love. 

“The research shows … that our bodies take, on average, about four years to recover from a divorce,” Williams explains. 

Speaking to researchers and scientists from around the world, Williams looks for answers as to why heartbreak hurts so much — “One of the key stories we tell ourselves is we are unlovable,” she says — strategies for healing, and why so much of the conventional wisdom about it is wrong. 




Andrea Brody