by MEGHAN RABBITT
When Florence Williams’ husband left her after being together since the first day of her freshman year of college, she felt like her world had turned upside down. And while she started experiencing the expected emotional fall-out from her breakup—think classic symptoms like sleeplessness, upset stomach, and weight loss—she also developed some pretty serious physical ailments.
Williams’ eye started twitching. She experienced heart palpitations. Inflammation markers in her bloodwork skyrocketed. She even developed Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition that experts say may have been triggered by the emotional trauma she was dealing with in the wake of her marriage ending.
“One of the real surprises to me is how much pain extended beyond my psyche—and how much it registered in my body,” Williams told The Sunday Paper. “I was existentially scared about my future and how I was going to survive for the first time in my adult life.”
In an effort to better understand what was happening to her, Williams—an award-winning science writer—began interviewing experts about the connection between emotional and physical pain. She writes about this investigation in her new book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey—a must-read for anyone who’s ever loved and lost.
We talked to Williams about what it was like to feel so untethered after the end of her marriage, what she learned about the very real, physical manifestations of heartbreak, and her best advice for others dealing with a broken heart.
A Conversation with Florence Williams
About a year after your split from your ex-husband, you set out on a solo canoe trip on Utah’s Green River. Why did you do this—and what did it show you?
I was so invested in the idea that nature can heal all things. I had put so much thought and effort into planning this wilderness solo adventure that would deliver me into this pristine state of healing. It wasn’t a totally crazy idea; and it was beautiful to be out there. I did feel this was a good way to learn how to be alone and become a brave person. But I also just felt so alone—and also scared, because it was so hot, and I kept thinking what happens if I turn over, and I can’t self-rescue this big boat on my own.
What I ultimately realized is that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea! Because before you can heal from heartbreak, you have to get out of the fight-or-flight state. At some point I realized I was trying to do this brave, macho thing—when what I really wanted was connection.
This was a year after I’d been doing a fair amount of research into the neuroscience of heartbreak. I’d written The Nature Fix, a book about how nature can help heal trauma. But the solo piece of this trip was a bit of an overreach in retrospect. I think I’d bought into this idea that through hardship, we can prevail. And actually, when you’re dealing with emotional trauma, that’s not necessarily the way to go. First, you need to find a place of safety before you can heal, and I’d put myself into a situation where I didn’t feel safe on that trip.
Can you talk about how untethered you felt when you realized your husband wanted out of your marriage?
I met my husband my first day of college, when I was 18 years old. We dated for 7 years, and we were married for 25 years. Looking back, I can see there were things that weren’t working. But I felt this sense that the future was secure, we were both good people, we loved each other. I thought we would figure it out. When that ended, it suddenly felt like I was floating through space upside down, and my future isn’t what I thought it was.
I was very attached to my life as a married person. I didn’t always feel so closely connected to my husband. I think in any marriage, especially a long one, there are times you feel really connected and times you don’t. But I think we have fantastic ways to rationalize that. We tell ourselves things like, This is just a phase. He’s got a big new job. The kids are so demanding. We’re so tired. Things will get better. I think I was really underestimating how lonely we both felt in our marriage.
What did you learn about the science behind heartbreak, and how it can impact us on a physical level?
After my divorce, my body was kind of freaking out. I felt really agitated; I felt the kind of hyper vigilance you feel when you’re in a threat state. What I learned is that pain registers in our brains in a way that’s similar to physical pain. We feel it in similar regions to a broken arm. It really does hurt.
Research has also shown that the parts of the brain associated with craving and addiction get activated when we’re dealing with heartbreak because there’s this sudden loss and we want the person back, or at least we want that sense of safety and a sense of our known future back.
We also know that our nervous systems get really involved in heartbreak. That’s because the nervous system can’t tell the difference between being rejected in love and being abandoned in the grasslands. You feel like you’re alone, you’ve been abandoned, of course your nervous system is going to pay attention to that. It’s one of those freaks of our human mammal bodies that we don’t respond super subtly to social slights or social pain; our bodies take it seriously. We’re hyper-sensitive to changes in status, and to signs of rejection because we’re such a social species. And that ability to be well liked and belong to a group is critical to our survival. So, in some ways we’re kind of wired for heartbreak.
Looking back on the weeks and months after your separation, what do you wish you’d known?
If my future self could’ve looked back and talked to myself, I would’ve tried to reassure myself that I would be OK. I’d tell her, “You are going to survive.” I didn’t know that back then; I’d never been through something that rough. I didn’t know if I’d be the person who’d come through it thriving and full of growth. I would’ve told myself, “Yeah, this really sucks right now, but it’s not gonna last so long and it’ll get better.”
When you’re in the throes of heartbreak, what you’re lacking is a sense of safety. If you can provide reassurance for yourself and for others who are going through it, it can be really helpful.
Once I found out my body was getting sick because of my heartbreak, I felt really motivated to get better. Walking in the woods, exercise, spending time with friends—these things all really helped.
So, what do we do in the face of heartbreak? What ultimately helped you feel better—and what’s your best advice for others going through this pain?
It takes time, but I think there are some ways to speed up the process. I break it down into three central parts:
First, you have to get out of the fight-or-flight phase. Find some calm and peace, however you can do that. Move your body, listen to music, hang out with friends. This is where to start, because you can’t start to heal if you’re in fight-or-flight.
Connection comes second. Heartbreak will make you feel lonely and like you don’t belong. Reaching out to friends and family and loved ones is the antidote to that. Connecting to the natural world—or wherever you find some sense of beauty—can also be incredibly helpful. Beauty is an underappreciated piece of the heartbreak cure. When we connect to beauty, it helps us gain perspective. It helps us see that maybe our problems aren’t the biggest in the world, and we feel connected to something larger than ourselves.
Finally, you want to find meaning and purpose. What lessons can you take away from your heartbreak to strengthen your heart and to open your heart, so you ultimately increase your capacity to love? That’s the hidden gem in heartbreak—that greater capacity to love is absolutely possible.
Being cracked open is a scary thing, but it also allows you to have this huge range of emotions. Yes, a lot of those emotions will be negative—but others will fill you with joy and beauty and gratitude. Not only that, but you’ll start to understand that it’s possible for these conflicting emotions to exist at the same time. Ultimately, I realized that feeling this range of emotions is something I’d never really felt before as I put my head down and went through life in a fairly composed, confident way. Now, I’m less afraid of the big emotions. In fact, they make me grateful because they make me feel alive.
Getting off the path tears you down to the studs. And what you find there is not all terrible!
What’s your best advice for others who are dealing with heartbreak—especially this time of year, when Valentine’s Day rolls around?
First, I’d say that while it may look like everyone’s happily paired up, don’t believe it. You probably wouldn’t want a lot of those relationships! Valentine’s Day is a holiday of so many empty platitudes. So, I think what’s important is to look inside and find the things that are meaningful to you and that you do love—and it doesn’t have to be romantic love! Think about landscapes you love. These are things that can give you a lot of fulfillment! Spend Valentine’s Day with your favorite oak tree or river!
What helped you do the tough emotional work in the weeks and months after your marriage ended?
Therapy definitely helped. Also, tapping into the universal experience of heartbreak. Even though it feels so singular when you’re going through it, knowing it’s universal phenom can be really helpful. We don’t have a lot of ways to ritualize breakups and heartbreak, which is part of why it feels so lonely. But knowing there’s this parade of people before and after you who march through this pain can feel comforting.
Let your friends help you as well. Feeling the love from my friends was so powerful. I’d never been so vulnerable with them before. Not everyone’s going to show up. Some people don’t. But the ones that do? You’ll be able to connect with them more deeply. I feel like my own heartbreak made me a better friend—a better listener and more empathetic.