Image by the fantastic Stuart F Taylor

Would we be more gentle with each other’s hearts if we knew how much it hurt when they get broken? I mean ‘hurt’ in a literal physical sense here. I used to think heartbreak was a universal physical sensation – one we all experienced in the same way. But recently I’ve discovered that heartbreak feels like different things to different people.

When my heart hurts, it hurts in waves. The same way orgasms happen in waves up and down my body, except with heartbreak it starts in the chest. Imagine a force sweeping through from the left hand side of the chest, down the body through other internal organs, then bouncing back up when it reaches the pit of the stomach. Alternating: soft and intense, over and over, up and down.

The first time I felt this sensation I knew immediately: this is what heartbreak feels like. It’s originating right here, in my actual heart. The physical pain is one of the reasons why I occasionally (petulantly, wrongly, absurdly) advise people not to fall in love.

Heartbreak feels like… chest pain

I’m not the only person who feels heartbreak in my chest, others do too.

For some, there’s chest pain but it isn’t the pulling/waving sensation that’s so familiar to me, it’s more of a tightness. A claustrophobia. Restricted breathing or a boot standing in the centre of their chest.

Heartbreak feels like… a stomach drop

This discussion didn’t come from thin air: I’ve been having some trouble with my heart lately and sadly, too, has someone I love very much. I asked him, in the midst of the maelstrom of our respective miseries, whether he felt the same physical sensations as I did. I expected him to say ‘yes’ – to describe a similar chest-throb or wave of emptiness that others have detailed above.

But I was wrong. What he described was far more like the following people describe: a temporary failure in gravity. A stomach-drop. Like you’re on a rollercoaster that’s just tipped over the edge, or in a lift that’s fallen three stories.

Some get a mix of the two:

It was my guy’s response to this heartbreak question that prompted me to ask Twitter about this, and as with the experiment I did aeons ago when I asked people to describe their own orgasms, I was amazed and fascinated by the results. Stomach and chest both had their fair share of entries, and so too did this…

Heartbreak feels like… numbness

Many people described a physical numbness too – not direct pain in a specific place, but a sensation of tingling cold.

Tiredness made an appearance as well – as the very effort of carrying the weight of this emotion drained their energy and sapped their physical strength.

All these sensations, all these people, all affected differently by the same kind of emotional pain.

These are not exhaustive, by the way. Some explained their pain by using a mixture of the symptoms I’ve described above, or additions to those. I’ve grouped them into a few broad categories but that’s not to say heartbreak is one thing or the other, or that what you feel – if different to this – is abnormal. Heartbreak is not exclusive or universal – it’s a pic n mix of pain and misery.

… and some having none. It’s important to mention that. Not everyone thinks heartbreak feels like physical pain.

Heartbreak in the brain but not the body

We don’t all experience physical symptoms – a couple of people explained that for them, heartbreak is an emotional and intellectual thing.

And this, from my DMs:

“absolutely no physical pain/discomfort at all. If anything, it’s almost mechanical, and fast, from emotional to intellectual…”

I include it here to highlight that with emotions, as with sexual pleasure, there is no ‘right’ way to experience a feeling. You feel what you feel. Whether heartbreak sits in your mind, or whether it manifests in your body – giving you chest pains, stomach drops, nausea, numbness, tingles, weights around your neck or any of the other physical sensations that Twitter people were kind enough to share – it still hurts. It’s still hard. It’s still one of those things that can shatter you. It’s still something that can take weeks, months, years, even decades to fully recover from. And as with the way we feel it, so our attempts to get over heartbreak will all be different too.

When I started writing this piece, scrolling through all the different descriptions of heartbreak, I wondered if the very act of sharing sensations would make me more empathetic. More gentle. More aware of the things I might have done in the past to hurt others’ hearts, or less likely to do them again some time in the future. I’d love that to be the case, because sharing stories does have an impact in so many other cases: hearing someone’s personal experience can make you more empathetic to others who share that experience. Understanding the background behind the way someone is can give you an insight that’s applicable to other areas of your life.

I’m a big believer in the power of stories.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’ll work when it comes to heartbreak. Though it might make us more sympathetic to friends who’ve been recently dumped, I doubt it’ll make the end of love hurt less, or be less likely. Just ask anyone who’s experienced a heartbreak of their own, yet fallen in love for a second, third, fifth, twenty-fifth time.

Heartbreak hurts, but it’ll never disappear. Love is too compelling.

Huge thanks to everyone on Twitter who chipped in to this discussion. You can read all the descriptions of heartbreak in this Twitter thread. You’re all amazing.

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