A broken heart might seem a strange topic for a Christmas Day blog post. But the holidays are a tough time for people with a broken heart. Is there any pain more unbearable? We are offered the slim consolation that time will help us heal. Our culture encourages us to deny our pain or hurry it along. What is the wisdom in a broken heart?
When we are in pain, we tend to actively distract ourselves from actually experiencing the powerful emotions that are the only keys to closure for what we have lost.
The ancient Stoic philosophers remind us that pain is an unavoidable part of human existence. It is an accepted sign of mental health to pursue healthy pleasures and avoid unnecessary pain.
But a broken heart can serve a purpose. Pain focuses our attention. The wisdom of a broken heart reveals hidden depths within us that otherwise might remain completely unexplored.
A broken heart presents us with a precious opportunity to deepen and grow. But pain doesn’t offer it’s deeper consolations automatically. It is for us to decide the meaning we make of our pain. Pain can transport us into uncharted realms of possibility.
The wisdom of a broken heart can inspire us to sift through our suffering to find nuggets of wisdom that will comfort us long after the pain has faded into memory.
The loss of a partner through death or divorce is often a herald of profound change. But we can summon a reserve of inner strength by asking ourselves beautiful and compelling questions. Things will never be the same. You will never be the same. But what you have learned will remain.
“Please remember, the grief you’re experiencing is yours, and you can carry it with you for as long as you like. Let go of it only when you feel that you are ready. and if you never feel ready, that’s a decision within your control. Carve out whatever space and time you require.”
The Stoics remind us that while we may lack control over what is happening, there are always specific things, negligible though they may seem, that are within our control. You can control your degree of self-care, for example. The wisdom of a broken heart begins with extreme self-care.
What are the Risks of a Broken Heart?
A broken heart may be life-threatening. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is the medical term for “Broken Heart Syndrome.” It afflicts women almost exclusively.
It is a heart condition that afflicts those who have suffered an overwhelming loss or profound emotional stress.
Researchers believe that the culprit is a temporary rush of stress hormones that can weaken the heart muscle and cause the arteries to constrict.
Combined with poor self-care, the results may be fatal.
Grieving is often accompanied by a loss of appetite and sleep. These two deteriorations in self-care may depress the immune system, and perhaps aggravate any underlying, but otherwise dormant medical conditions.
Widowed people have a higher risk of general illness. They also are subject to bouts of anxiety and depression which can further depress their immune systems. Change in coping behaviors may also be maladaptive (i.e. drinking or drugging). Grief can become a vicious circle of poor self-care, anxiety, depression, and self-medication. We grieve forever because we love forever.
The Critical First Month After a Major Loss.
British researchers have discovered that the risk of coronary failure or stroke doubles during the first month of bereavement.
Earlier this year, Danish researchers also discovered that people who have lost their partners have an increased risk of developing an irregular heartbeat. This a significant risk factor for stroke and heart failure.
If you are enduring your first month of grief, make sure that you get sufficient social support, sleep, and proper nourishment.
But in your social supports allow space for grief. Don’t allow others to marginalize what you are feeling. Grief can not be outlawed.
Be careful with your alcohol intake. Realize that proper self-care of your body is a doorway into healing your grief.
The Importance of Extreme Self-Care
With the wisdom of a broken heart, you can eventually become more resilient and mentally tough, but it starts with extreme self-care, right now.
You may also work to control your thoughts. You can challenge and interrupt painful memories of lost love, or you can feed your mind by reading helpful books, spending time with supportive friends and family, and prayer if you are spiritually inclined.
Prayer and meditation may transport you into beautiful questions that will help you to find meaning. Anticipate that through self-care, reflection, and meditation you will uncover a richer, deeper inner-self to help you move forward with clarity.
Pain is a sign to look deep inside yourself. Accept with certainty that you will uncover lessons from your pain.
Lessons that will help you to heal, learn and grow.
A Broken Heart Lets in the Light
Pain offers us an invitation into a deeper consolation through connection. The wisdom of a broken heart invites us to connect with our friends and family. We connect with our feelings. We connect with our past memories of happier times.
But we may risk falling in love with our pain. It tells us a story of sadness that allows us to feel our aspiration for a deeper sense of intimacy. But falling in love with pain is like a plastic apple. It may look like the real thing. But it has no taste or texture that satisfies.
How do we escape pain? What are the beautiful questions I referred to earlier? One of the first beautiful questions the wisdom of a broken heart might ask is “How can I use this pain?” Other beautiful questions might be “What do I value more than my abiding sense of suffering? and “Who else is suffering that needs my help?”
Post-Traumatic Growth and a Broken Heart
Research into post-traumatic growth has demonstrated repeatedly that people in pain who can manage to shift their attention from themselves to someone or something else, are gradually able to release their pain into a deeper meaning and move on. This is the power of what the Buddhists call loving-kindness.
Post-traumatic growth is a process through which the wisdom of a broken heart helps you grow and expand your capacity for connection and contribution.
Acceptance and growth will leave you fundamentally stretched beyond the confines of your former self. Your pain becomes a pearl.
If you search for meaning, the universe will happily oblige you. You will find it. You will find opportunities to take control and make powerful shifts in your life. Instead of reacting and regressing, you will learn to reflect and respond.
How to Make a Broken Heart Responsive Once More
And once you are reflecting and responding on a consistent basis, ever more beautiful questions will arise.
What will you do today that you could not, or would not do yesterday? What thoughts have taken on a deeper significance for you? What new dreams will you aspire to? Who can you help right now?
A broken heart can be a pathway to growth. But it starts with extreme self-care, deep reflection, and a positive expectancy that healing and clarity are your birthrights as a human being.
Your birthright awaits you.
Heal a Broken Heart
Research on Post-Traumatic Growth:
Affleck, G., Allen, D. A., Tennen, H., McGrade, B. J., & Ratzan, S. (1985). Causal and control cognitions in parents’ coping with chronically ill children.Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 3, 367–377.Google Scholar
Affleck, G., Tennen, H., & Croog, S. (1987). Causal attributions, perceived benefits, and morbidity after a heart attack: An 8 year study.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 29–35.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Affleck, G., Tennen, H., & Gershman, K. (1985). Cognitive adaptations to high-risk infants: The search for mastery, meaning, and protection from future harm.American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 89, 653–656.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Aldwin, C. M. (1994).Stress, coping, and development. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
Andreasen, N. L., & Norris, A. S. (1972). Long-term adjustment and adaptation mechanisms in severely burned adults.Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 154, 352–362.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Andrykowski, M. A. (1992, August).Positive psychosocial adjustment among cancer survivors. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
Bijur, P.E., Wallston, K. A., Smith, C. A., Lifrak, S., & Friedman, S. A. (1993, August). Gender differences in turning to religion for coping. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.Google Scholar
Birren, J. E., & Fisher, L. M. (1990). The elements of wisdom: Overview and integration. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.),Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 317–332). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Burt, M. R., & Katz, B. L. (1987). Dimensions of recovery from rape: Focus on growth outcomes.Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2, 57–81.Google Scholar
Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1989–90). Positive aspects of critical life problems: Recollections of grief.Omega, 20, 265–272.Google Scholar
Carver, C. S., Pozo, C, Harris, S. D., Noriega, V., Scheier, M. F., Robinson, D. S., Ketcham, A. S., Moffat, Jr., F. L., & Clark, K. C. (1993). How coping mediates the effect of optimism on distress: A study of women with early stage breast cancer.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 375–390.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Collins, R. L., Taylor, S. E., & Skokan, L. A. (1990). A better world or a shattered vision? Changes in life perspectives following victimization.Social Cognition, 8, 263–285.Google Scholar
Cooley, W. W., & Lohnes, P. R. (1971).Multivariate data analysis. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1985).The NEO Personality Inventory Manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.Google Scholar
Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1960). A new scale of social desirability independent of psychopathology.Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24, 349–354.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Dakof, G. A., & Taylor, S. E. (1990). Victims’ perceptions of social support: What is helpful to whom?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 80–89.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Fiske, S., & Taylor, S. E. (1991).Social cognition (2nd Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
Garmezy, N. (1994). Reflections and commentary on risk, resilience, and development. In R. J. Haggerty, L. R. Sherrod, N. Garmezy, & M. Rutter (Eds.),Stress, risk and resilience in children and adolescents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Goodhart, D. E. (1985). Some psychological effects associated with positive and negative thinking about stressful event outcomes: Was Pollyanna right?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 216–232.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history.American Psychologist, 35, 603–618.Google Scholar
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992).Shattered assumptions. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
Joseph, S., Williams, R., & Yule, W. (1993). Changes in outlook following disaster: The preliminary development of a measure to assess positive and negative responses.Journal of Traumatic Stress, 6, 271–279.Google Scholar
Kahana, B. (1992). Late-life adaptation in the aftermath of extreme stress. In M. Wykel, E. Kahana, & J. Kowal (Eds.),Stress and health among the elderly (pp. 5–34). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
Kobasa, S. C. (1979). Stressful life events, personality, and health: An inquiry into hardiness.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1–11.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Lehman, D. R., Davis, C. G., Delongis, A., Wortman, C., Bluck, S., Mandel, D. R., & Ellard, J. H. (1993). Positive and negative life changes following bereavement and their relations to adjustment.Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 12, 90–112.Google Scholar
Malinak, D. P., Hoyt, M. F., & Patterson, V. (1979). Adults’ reactions to the death of a parent.American Journal of Psychiatry, 136, 1152–1156.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Martin, L. L., Tesser, A., & McIntosh, W. D. (1993). Wanting but not having: The effects of unattained goals on thoughts and feelings. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.),Handbook of mental control (pp. 552–572). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
McCrae, R. R. (1992). The five-factor model: Issues and applications [Special issue].Journal of Personality, 60.Google Scholar
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T., Jr., (1986). Personality, coping, and coping effectiveness in an adult sample.Journal of Personality, 385–405.Google Scholar
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T., Jr., (1993). Psychological resilience among widowed men and women: A 10-year follow-up of a national sample. In M. S. Stroebe, W. Stroebe, & R. O. Hansson (Eds.),Handbook of bereavement: Theory, research, and intervention (pp. 196–207). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Norris, F. H. (1990). Screening for traumatic stress: A scale for use in the general population.Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20, 1704–1718.Google Scholar
Pargament, K. I., Royster, B. J. T., Albert, M., Crowe, P., Cullman, E. P., Holley, R., Schaefer, D., Sytniak, M., & Wood, M. (1990, August).A qualitative approach to the study of religion and coping: Four tentative conclusions. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA.Google Scholar
Park, C. L., Cohen, L. H., & Murch, R. L. (in press). Assessment and prediction of stress-related growth.Journal of Personality.Google Scholar
Pressman, P., Lyons, J. S., Larson, D. B., & Strain, J. J. (1990). Religious belief, depression, and ambulation status in elderly women with broken hips.American Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 758–760.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Rothbaum, F., Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1982). Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 5–37.Google Scholar
Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms.American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57, 316–331.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies.Health Psychology, 4, 219–247.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Scheier, M. F., Weintraub, J. K., & Carver, C. S. (1986). Coping with stress: Divergent strategies of optimists and pessimists.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1257–1264.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Schwartzberg, S. S. (1994). Vitality and growth in HIV-infected gay men.Social Science and Medicine, 38, 593–602.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Schwartzberg, S. S., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1991). Grief and the search for meaning: Exploring the assumptive worlds of bereaved college students.Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 10, 270–288.Google Scholar
Silver, R. L., Boon, C., & Stones, M. (1983). Searching for meaning in misfortune: Making sense of incest.Journal of Social Issues, 39, 81–102.Google Scholar
Sledge, W. H., Boydstun, J. A., & Rabe, A. J. (1980). Self-concept changes related to war captivity.Archives of General Psychiatry, 37, 430–443.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Smith, T. W., Houston, B. K., & Stucky, R. J. (1982). Positive evaluation as a strategy for coping with stress.Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1, 193–208.Google Scholar
Smith, T. W., Pope, M. K., Rhodewalt, F., & Poulton, J. L. (1989). Optimism, neuroticism, coping, and symptom reports: An alternative interpretation of the Life Orientation Test.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 640–648.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Stutman, S., & Baruch, R. (1992, August). A model for the process of fostering resilience. In H. Tomes (Chair),The process of fostering resilience: Roles for psychologists and the media. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
Stutts, W., Calhoun, L. G., Tedeschi, R. G., & Cann, A. (1994, August). Religion, assumptive worlds, and the aftermath of trauma: What changes? Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Los Angeles.Google Scholar
Taylor, S. E. (1983). Adjustment to threatening events.: A theory of cognitive adaptation.American Psychologist, 38, 1161–1173.Google Scholar
Taylor, S. E., Lichtman, R. R., & Wood, J. V. (1984). Attributions, beliefs in control, and adjustment to breast cancer.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 489–502.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health.Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193–210.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L.G. (1995).Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
Thomas, L. E., DiGiulio, R. C., & Sheehan, N. W. (1991). Identifying loss and psychological crisis in widowhood.International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 26, 279–295.Google Scholar
Thompson, S. C. (1985). Finding positive meaning in a stressful event and coping.Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 6, 279–295.Google Scholar
Veronen, L. J., & Kilpatrick, D. G. (1983). Rape: A precursor of change. In E. J. Callahan & K. A. McCluskey (Eds.),Life-span developmental psychology: Nonnormative life events (pp. 167–191). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Vrana, S., & Lauterbach, D. (1994). Prevalence of traumatic events and posttraumatic psychological symptoms in a nonclinical sample of college students.Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7, 289–302.PubMedGoogle Scholar
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.