“Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.” ~ Gabriel García Márquez
When we feel blindsided and completely gutted by a painful experience, we lose some of our faculties.
The executive command center of the brain goes offline. Emotional pain overtakes us, coursing through our bodies and paralyzing us. If it’s a convenient time for paralysis, curling up in a ball on the bathroom floor may be a temporary option.
Usually, though, we have to pull ourselves up and take care of our jobs, kids, pets, partners, and maybe another person who is suffering as much as we are.
Heartbreak is not a competition. We’ve all felt overwhelmed by sorrowful emotions. Losses and catastrophes—big and small—impact every human life. Unfortunately for some, especially individuals who are neuroatypical, an overpowering emotional response can induce self-harm and harm to others. We need concrete tactics to help derail emotional overwhelm.
How can we compassionately embrace heartbreak while remaining mentally stable and functional?
I’m asking this question in the wake of a painful relationship breakdown I experienced last week. I was so heartbroken by the words and behaviors of a loved one that I lost an entire night of sleep, missed a deadline, and spent unbudgeted money to stay in a hotel because I felt I couldn’t safely drive home.
I felt misunderstood, rejected, and abandoned. I was transported back to the persona of the wounded child. Primal instincts sent me into a trauma reaction, completely cutting me off from my rational mind.
I practice unconditional positive self-regard. I cut myself slack when I’m feeling down. But I hope I can respond more rationally the next time someone else’s actions deeply upset me. Once I felt back to myself and mindful of my emotions in a compassionate way, I listed the actions I had taken to feel better and get centered.
The following are immediate, concrete actions we can take to keep moving forward when we experience heartbreak. If you’re in the midst of crippling emotional pain right now—I’m sorry, and I hope something here can be useful.
1. Place your hands on your body and breathe consciously. Get yourself somewhere you can sit or lie down, or stand leaning against a wall for support. Place one hand on the area of your chest, near your heart. Place the other hand on your belly or forehead. Notice how your breath feels as you inhale and exhale, and feel the sensations of your hands on your body.
This is a gesture of self-comfort. It may not feel comfortable instantly, but your nervous system will respond with more calming sensations if you keep your awareness on your breathing for at least 10 breaths, emphasizing the exhalation. Imagine nourishing yourself with your breath, allowing it to flow in and nourish your heart, then flow out and soothe your strong emotions.
2. Link simple movement to your breath. This is especially centering and balancing when you are lying down. Lying on your bed, couch, or the floor (sometimes that’s the only place we can manage to be), take some time to become aware of your breath, as above. Once your breath feels fairly even, try reaching both arms up and back on the inhale, then lower them to your sides again on the exhale.
To incorporate the whole body, inhale reaching your arms back and extending your legs straight, then exhale hugging your knees into your chest, giving yourself a hug. Try other movements that feel good, keeping them synchronized with the inhalation and exhalation.
3. Engage each of your senses to ground yourself in the present moment. Get yourself oriented to your physical surroundings by noticing where you are and what’s around you. Take a visual inventory of the space you’re in, noticing light quality, colors, and textures. Notice any sounds in the background, such a passing cars, the hum of appliances, or a neighbor walking across the floor upstairs.
Begin to silently name what you can see and hear. Notice the temperature of the air on your skin, and engage your tactile sense further by noticing the surface and support underneath you. Notice how the fabric of your clothing feels against your skin. Take conscious breaths in through your nostrils and notice any scent in the air. If you can muster the energy, light incense or a candle to enhance your olfactory experience and bring your awareness further into your senses.
As crippling as our sorrow can feel, we need to eat and drink, so find something to mindfully ingest. As you approach your snack or beverage, notice all you can about the aroma of what you will take into your body. Take a moment of gratitude before you consume it. Then, chew slowly and mindfully noticing the temperature and taste before you swallow. Don’t worry about what you choose to eat in this moment. Simply be good to yourself and eat what you love, letting it be a balm to your emotional wounds.
This is different from stuffing our emotions down with food. With mindful eating, we’re staying conscious and aware of our sensory experience; this tempers overwhelming emotions.
4. Immerse your body in water. Immersion in water is a time-honored healing and awakening practice. A warm bath, a hot shower, a dip into a lake or pool—each of these actions will shift your energy and cleanse your physical and subtle bodies. If there is ever a time to be less strict about using too much water in the shower, this would be it. Take a few extra minutes to let the warm water cascade over your body, relaxing your muscles and beginning to clear away painful residues you’d like to release.
5. Offer up your pain to the divine, to a confidant, or both. Express the experience of your heartbreak in words, either aloud or in your mind. Not everyone prays. If you are someone who has ever prayed, allow yourself to come back to the practice of turning over your pain to a higher power, describing the triggering events and the related feelings to a source of love and compassion—however you conceive of such a being.
If you do not pray, talk or write to a trusted confidant to release the burden of your present experience. Keep the intention of releasing your pain in your mind, imagining that as your words come out, some of your pain leaves you. Keep in mind that when it feels too painful to speak, you can release your pain through writing to your confidant, or to god/dess. Once you have finished releasing your words, pause for moment to acknowledge what you have offered and notice if you feel less burdened.
Heartbreak is a universal experience, but so is healing. May we heal ourselves and others of harmful emotional pain with mindful presence and compassion.