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Heartbreak is a universal experience that comes with intense emotional anguish and distress.
While many people associate a broken heart with the end of a romantic relationship, therapist Jenna Palumbo, LCPC, emphasizes that “grief is complicated.” The death of a loved one, job loss, changing careers, losing a close friend — all of these can leave you brokenhearted and feeling like your world will never be the same.
There’s no way around it: healing a broken heart takes time. But there are things you can do to support yourself through the healing process and protect your emotional wellbeing.
It’s essential to look after your own needs after heartbreak, even if you don’t always feel like it.
Give yourself permission to grieve
Grief is not the same for everyone, says Palumbo, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to give yourself permission to feel all of your sadness, anger, loneliness, or guilt.
“Sometimes by doing that, you unconsciously give those around you permission to feel their own grief, too, and you won’t feel like you’re alone in it anymore.” You just might find that a friend’s gone through similar pain and has some pointers for you.
Take care of yourself
When you’re in the midst of heartbreak, it’s easy to forget to take care of your personal needs. But grieving isn’t just an emotional experience, it also depletes you physically. Indeed, research has shown that physical and emotional pain travel along the same pathways in the brain.
Deep breathing, meditation, and exercise can be great ways to preserve your energy. But don’t beat yourself up over it, either. Simply making an effort to eat and stay hydrated can go a long way. Take it slow, one day at a time.
Lead the way in letting people know what you need
Everyone copes with loss in their own way, says Kristen Carpenter, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
She advises being clear about whether you prefer to grieve privately, with the support of close friends or with a wide circle of people accessible through social networks.
Getting your needs out there will save you from trying to think of something in the moment, says Carpenter, and will allow someone who wants to be supportive to help you and make your life easier by checking something off your list.
Write down what you need (aka the ‘notecard method’)
How it works:
- Sit down and make a list of what you need, including needs for tangible and emotional support. This could involve mowing the grass, grocery shopping, or simply talking on the phone.
- Get a stack of notecards and write down one item on each card.
- When people ask how they can help, hand them a note card or have them choose something they feel they can do. This relieves the pressure to articulate your needs on the spot when someone asks.
Research has found that spending just 2 hours a week outdoors can improve your mental and physical health. If you can get out to some beautiful scenery, great. But even regular walks around the neighborhood can help.
Read self-help books and listen to podcasts
Knowing that others have gone through similar experiences and come out on the other side can may help you feel less alone.
Reading a book (we’ve got some recommendations later in this article) or listening to a podcast about your particular loss can also provide you with validation and be a supportive way for you to process your emotions.
Try a feel-good activity
Set aside time every day for doing something that feels positive, whether that’s journaling, meeting up with a close friend, or watching a show that makes you laugh.
Scheduling in moments that bring you joy is vital for healing a broken heart.
Seek professional help
It’s important to talk about your feelings with others and not numb yourself out. This is easier said than done, and it’s totally normal to need some extra help.
If you find that your grief is too much to bear on your own, a mental health professional can help you work through painful emotions. Even just two or three sessions can help you develop some new coping tools.
After giving yourself some space to grieve and tending to your needs, start looking toward creating new routines and habits that can help you continue to process your loss.
Don’t try to suppress the pain
“Don’t waste energy on feeling ashamed or guilty about your feelings,” says Carpenter. Instead, “invest that energy in making concrete efforts to feel better and to heal.”
Consider giving yourself 10 to 15 minutes each day to acknowledge and feel your sadness. By giving it some dedicated attention, you may find it popping up less and less throughout your day.
Self-compassion involves treating yourself with love and respect while not judging yourself.
Think of how you would treat a close friend or family member going through a hard time. What would you say to them? What would you offer them? How would you show them you care? Take your answers and apply them to yourself.
Create space in your schedule
When you are going through a difficult time, it can be easy to distract yourself with activities. While this can be helpful, make sure you’re still leaving yourself some space to process your feelings and have some down time.
Foster new traditions
If you’ve ended a relationship or lost a loved one, you may feel like you’ve lost a lifetime of traditions and rituals. Holidays can be particularly hard.
Allow friends and family to help you create new traditions and memories. Don’t hesitate to reach out for some extra support during major holidays.
Write it down
Once you’ve had some time to sit with your feelings, journaling can help you better organize them and give you a chance to unload any emotions that might be hard to share with others.
Find a support system
Regularly attending or engaging in in-person or online support groups can provide a safe environment to help you cope. It’s also healing to share your feelings and challenges with those in similar situations.
Connect with yourself
Going through a big loss or change can leave you feeling a little unsure of yourself and who you are. You can do this by connecting to your body through exercise, spending time in nature, or connecting with your spiritual and philosophical beliefs.
As you navigate the process of healing a broken heart, it’s helpful to have realistic expectations about the process. From pop songs to rom-coms, society can give a warped view of what heartbreak actually entails.
Here are a few things to keep in the back of your mind.
Your experience is valid
The death of a loved one is the more overt form of grief, Palumbo explains, but covert grief can look like the loss of a friendship or relationship. Or maybe you’re starting a new phase of your life by changing careers or becoming an empty nester.
Whatever it is, it’s important to validate your grief. This simply means recognizing the impact it’s had on your life.
It’s not a competition
It’s natural to compare your situation to that of others, but heartbreak and grieving aren’t a competition.
Just because it’s the loss of a friendship and not the death of a friend doesn’t mean the process isn’t the same, says Palumbo. “You’re relearning how to live in a world without an important relationship you once had.”
There’s no expiration date
Grief is not the same for everyone and it has no timetable. Avoid statements like “I should be moving on by now,” and give yourself all of the time you need to heal.
You can’t avoid it
As hard as it might feel, you have to move through it. The more you put off dealing with painful emotions, the longer it will take for you to start feeling better.
Expect the unexpected
As your grief evolves, so will the intensity and frequency of heartbreak. At times it will feel like soft waves that come and go. But some days, it might feel like an uncontrollable jolt of emotion. Try not to judge how your emotions manifest.
You’ll have periods of happiness
Remember that it’s okay to fully experience moments of joy as you grieve. Spend part of each day focusing on the present moment, and allow yourself to embrace the good things in life.
If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, this might bring up some feelings of guilt. But experiencing joy and happiness is crucial to moving forward. And forcing yourself to stay in a negative state of mind won’t change the situation.
It’s okay to not be okay
A profound loss, like the death of a loved one, is going to look vastly different from a job rejection, notes therapist Victoria Fisher, LMSW. “In both cases, it’s imperative to allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling and remember that it’s okay not to be okay.”
Even if you’re doing everything you can to work through your heartbreak, you’ll probably still have off days. Take them as they come and try again tomorrow.
Don’t expect your suffering to go away sooner than when it’s ready. Try to accept your new reality and understand that your grief will take some time to heal.
When you’re dealing with heartbreak, books can be both a distraction and a healing tool. They don’t have to be big self-help books, either. Personal accounts of how others have lived through grief can be just as powerful.
Here are some titles to get you started.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling book “Wild,” compiled questions and answers from her formerly anonymous advice column. Each in-depth response offers insightful and compassionate advice for anyone who’s experienced a wide range of losses including infidelity, a loveless marriage, or death in the family.
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
Acclaimed author Anne Lamott delivers profound, honest, and unexpected stories that teach us how to turn toward love even in the most hopeless situations. Just be aware that there are some religious undertones in her work.
Love You Like the Sky: Surviving the Suicide of a Beloved
Psychologist and survivor of suicide Dr. Sarah Neustadter provides a roadmap navigating the complicated emotions of grief and turning despair into beauty.
The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: How to Turn the Pain of a Breakup Into Healing, Insight, and New Love
Through her gentle, encouraging wisdom, Susan Piver offers recommendations for recovering from the trauma of a broken heart. Think of it as a prescription for dealing with the anguish and disappointment of a breakup.
On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard
Despite being nearly deaf and experiencing the debilitating loss of her father as a child, author Jennifer Pastiloff learned how to rebuild her life by listening fiercely and caring for others.
The Year of Magical Thinking
For anyone who’s experienced the sudden death of a spouse, Joan Didion offers a raw and honest portrayal of a marriage and life that explores illness, trauma, and death.
No Mud, No Lotus
With compassion and simplicity, Buddhist monk and Vietnam refugee Thich Nhat Hanh provides practices for embracing pain and finding true joy.
How to Heal a Broken Heart in 30 Days: A Day-by-Day Guide to Saying Good-bye and Getting On With Your Life
Howard Bronson and Mike Riley lead you through recovering from the end of a romantic relationship with insights and exercises meant to help you heal and build resilience.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Through her heartfelt, honest storytelling, Brené Brown, PhD, explores how we can strengthen our connection to the world and cultivate feelings of self-acceptance and love.
The hard truth of going through loss is that it can change your life forever. There will be moments when you feel overcome with heartache. But there will be others when you see a glimmer of light.
For some grief, as Fisher notes, “it’s a matter of surviving for a while until you gradually build a new, different life with an open space for the grief when it arises.”