What’s going on in our bodies when we feel the painful stab of romantic rejection? It’s a curious thing, when you think about it: how can our hopes and fears bring about literal chest pains?
Heartache is the collection of physical symptoms caused by the stress response acting on your heart, lungs and stomach – all triggered by emotional anguish. The brain and body are so interconnected that psychological pain can cause physical changes that hurt. It can happen quickly (in response to a shocking event) or build up slowly (when romantic dreams turn sour, or a relationship falls apart).
When it comes to thwarted romance, the pain is like an unwelcome guest that lingers too long; always there, but also given to sudden distressing outbursts that frighten you.
For limerents, seeing the person you are obsessed with flirt with someone else, or having them ridicule or scorn you, causes an awful cold stab to the heart. That’s bad enough, but the slow burn of chest-tightening suffocation when you realise you are trapped in an unwanted obsession is even worse. You can’t even escape that in the quiet of your own room.
To understand what heartache is all about, we need to think through a couple of issues: first, why does it hurt so much, and second, what is actually going on in your body?
Why does it matter so much?
There are few biological imperatives stronger than the desire to bond with a potential mate. I know it’s not a poetic way to put it, but fundamentally, we are built to reproduce. You may not want to, you may not be able to, but every person alive comes from an unbroken line of ancestors who successfully made babies all the way back to the dawn of life. Those millennia of compounding desperately long odds will select for creatures that feel the urge to procreate very, very urgently.
Now, we’ve transcended our evolutionary fate in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the drive isn’t still built into us. The emotional reward of romantic attachment is immense. For limerents in particular, our brains are wired to go into supercharged motivational overdrive in response to the possibility of bonding with a romantic partner. It’s a life changing euphoria that is almost unmatched by any other fundamental drives.
Early on, that drive leads to butterflies and giddiness, but once the sense of rejection starts to creep in, the nervous excitement turns inexorably into fear of loss. That’s really what we mean by heartache. That agony when we sense that the ecstasy we had hoped for is slipping out of reach.
This pain is worsened if we bonded with LO, emotionally. If they were a source of support and encouragement, as well as a fantasy figure, then the loss is greater than just the loss of reward. Future hopes, the promises of a soulmate, the dream of a blissful union… they are all wrecked too.
The pain of rejection
As mentioned earlier, heartache comes in two forms – fast and slow.
The immediate pain of rejection is quick. They tell you “No,” directly, or indirectly. You see them with someone else, obviously besotted. They avoid you, or ghost you, obviously embarrassed by your interest and attention. You suddenly see that your infatuation is ridiculous.
That sudden shock triggers the “fight or flight” response. Noradrenaline is released by the sympathetic nervous system and starts getting your body ready for action. Your heart beats faster. Blood flows to your muscles, and away from your stomach. Your lungs dilate and you breathe faster. A secondary hit of adrenaline circulates in the blood, amplifying the nervous response. All of that adds up to throbbing pain in the chest, as your heart and lungs adapt to the rush of agitation.
Brains aren’t good at distinguishing between physical and emotional threats. We have this system built into us that causes a shock of alarm, and it readies us to take action – and it can be activated just as effectively by the fear of romantic loss as the fear of sabre-toothed tigers.
The pain of anxiety
Sudden, hammering chest pain is mostly short-lived, and settles when the immediate shock has passed. The long-term, dull ache of romantic devastation is more complex.
Anxiety can become chronic. Too much short-term stress can transition to a prolonged state of stress caused mostly by another hormone, cortisol. This is also released from the adrenal glands (like adrenaline), but brings about longer lasting changes in physiology. Cortisol is known as “the stress hormone”, but really it’s primary role is again to get you ready for trouble.
Cortisol decreases inflammation, depresses the immune response, releases energy by altering metabolism, and increases stomach acid production. Those are all useful in their way for dealing with an emergency. If you are in a dangerous environment, it makes sense to put off basic physiological functions until you are safe, but it does also mean you get acid reflux and are prone to infections.
When the emergency lasts too long
As anyone living in the modern world knows, our big problem with stress is that the emergency response can last indefinitely. Keep up the levels of cortisol and adrenaline for too long, and the wear and tear on the body builds up. The constant fluctuations in heart rate take their toll. The lungs feel constricted, the chest tight. Panic attacks can set in, where the dysregulation of the stress response tips over into a complete emotional breakdown that manifests as a physical crisis.
This is the state in which heartache can feel seriously unsettling. It can feel like the heart is fluttering, a sudden vice-like grip is crushing your chest, your body runs hot and cold, your skin tingles.
In rare but severe cases, chronic stress associated with emotional loss (typically bereavement, but also romantic rejection) can lead to a literal distortion of the structure of the heart known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. “Broken heart syndrome” is real, but usually resolves without lasting damage.
Finally, as one last bitter irony, the prolonged disruption of your heart and blood vessels can actually make you more vulnerable to suffering a heart attack.
We are built in such a way that heartache is an inescapable feature of romantic rejection. The regulatory systems that cause the physical symptoms are built into us for a good reason, but activate them for too long or too urgently, and we suffer pain.
The key point, though, is that heartache starts in our minds. It happens because we care profoundly about romantic connection. It really matters, and we panic when we think we are losing it.
And so – as ever, when it comes to limerence – the best way to relieve the pain is to work at the psychological level. Ignoring the mental origin of the heartache and trying to tough it out through the physical pain is a bad plan. Tackle the root cause of the emotional pain and the physical symptoms will inevitably fade.
That means starting on the slow work of forgiving yourself for accidentally falling into infatuation, patiently climbing back out of the hole you are in, and beginning to build a more purposeful life.
Peace through liberation.
Yes, the all-elusive peace and forgiveness of self. What year of growth this has been, and thank you, DrL. , for your illuminating blogs. They’ve been so helpful in understanding what the hell happened.
What a relief and hope, armed with all this knowledge, that I can run, run, run the other direction should some charming LO come my way again! Know your weaknesses to be strong, and retreat–while not graceful–is the noble thing to do. It spreads much less destruction and mayhem. 😁. NC is a necessary thing to do — at least for me. Now the meaningful living bit…
“Now the meaningful living bit…”
Working on this myself. I have started working on what I would call a side hustle, an artistic project, but I am naturally undisciplined and have to set up a schedule and literally sit with a timer as I work or I will become distracted very easily. It’s why I have to avoid the beach, which is somewhat close to me and may be a peaceful place to work. Too many shirtless dudes. 🙂
Maybe time for some more posts on purposeful living…?
Blue Ivy says
“Maybe time for some more posts on purposeful living…?”
Yes please! I had been thinking of asking you if you would… Ithink it will be really helpful for LwL cohort
OK. Cool. Is there any particular aspect you’d like to know more about? What would be most helpful from your perspective?
Yes Dr L! Purposeful living ideas that give a little wholesome thrill would be nice.
Blue Ivy says
Dr L, let me give it a shot 🙂
Warning: Stream-of-consciouness-random-ramblings ahead
Here are some WHAT and HOW questions I have around this …
1. What does Purposeful Living look like?
2. How to find your purpose in life?
You may like & enjoy a number of activities… how does one of these graduate to becoming the Purpose (capital P) of your life?
Does it even have to be as lofty as that?
Say, I enjoy & get fulfillment from public speaking in conferences, or gardening, or planning get-togethers. This is not solving the climate-crisis or working towards racial justice, or even starting a business from ground-up level of all-consuming passion… can these become a purpose? How…. if what I feel is a mild interest, not total passion?!
3. How to change the habits of mind?
I am reading the amazing “Atomic Habits” right now. It is easy (ok, not easy, but in the realm of possibility) to change external habits, but how do you change the habits of brain to redirect toward new channels of purposeful living, when it is so used to getting instant & delicious rewards of limerence from certain thoughts?
Biggest question – I’m sure many on this site have areas in life they are dedicated to and get energized by, BUT these also coexist with a parallel internal universe of limerence. How do you redirect your mental energy from latter to former?
Hope these make sense.
Yes they do! Lots to work with, there. Thanks Blue Ivy.
Any other commenters wanting to add ideas… well this is a good place 🙂
I have one!
I took a photograph of a very happy no LO memory and had it made into a jigsaw puzzle. It was a group event with lots of happy faces all working on a project.
It took several weeks to get it done (it was pretty intricate) but every time I found a matching piece that fit in it’s spot I got this little thrill.
I had never done a jigsaw puzzle before but I now know that they can be mini-thrill inducing.
I’ll take it!
Limerent Emertitus says
Didn’t you learn anything from Calvin?
“But if you’re willfully stupid, you don’t know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like! The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest!” – https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1992/05/17#:~:text=But%20if%20you're%20willfully,want%20to%20know%20about%20it.
Spend any time around LwL, and you learn limerence is a wonderful device for promoting short-term stupid self-interest.
Purposeful living?! “I sat phooey to that!”
Maybe some neurological side to explaining why for me finding another addictive hobby helps with getting over my last LE. Currently using a language learning app that uses SRS (Spaced Repetition System) and so far it’s one of the biggest reason why I’m hardly thinking of LO#4 in the same way I used to in the past months.
My time everyday that would have been spent ruminating weren’t given the light of day with the learning apps with “gamification” that’s been set up well enough. For someone else, it might look like a mid-life crisis hobby, but to me anything is better than going through LE again. I have much respect to all of the classic mid-life crisis hobbies now, when back then when I was younger, I would scorn or look down on how wasteful (of time and money) they are usually, lol. Now I think those were good investment to a happier life and relationship, as long one does not end up broke or in debt, or making the partner upset, of course.
To me, it took the worst of LE to re-examine and ask was there anything that I used to want to do but have left them at the sideways from living on auto-pilot. I think I have been lucky because I can see it can have a downside if one inadvertently choose a damaging addictive compensation instead.
“Maybe some neurological side to explaining why for me finding another addictive hobby helps with getting over my last LE. Currently using a language learning app that uses SRS (Spaced Repetition System) …”
Has that taken the place of the limerent high? I have struggled with finding an activity that compares to limerence. You made reference to middle-aged hobbies, and I find most of those a snore, tbh — gardening, home improvement, cards, ladies who lunch.
Sorry for noticing your reply so late when only re-reading LwL blog writings and comments again.
I would say the “gamification” of the language learning app I’m currently using has taken over in making me distracted from reminiscing the limerence high, but I could tell it’s a different kind of high. It didn’t really make me forget the limerence high but it’s a good enough subtitute in dulling the addiction.
I haven’t taken too much recreation drugs but I guess the app is like taking daily weed, nice relaxing sedative or sometimes makes me hyped up. Whereas limerence high is like taking acid and getting the good trip where my memory of them are vivid, bright and feeling more special. But then again, unlike limerence, I’ve only taken LSD mindfully while making sure I’m mostly in a relaxed phase and having a trusted “trip sitter”. Whereas limerence is more accidental with the mindful bit thrown out of the window, so maybe this analogy isn’t a good one.
However, my point is that if someone who isn’t interested in game rewards + learning a language, for them to do the same thing I’m doing to get over limerence isn’t going to work at all, in my opinion. It has to be something the person have always wanted to do, and I mean, truly want deep down, without the wishful thinking but going to give up halfway when the journey gets tough. Because that would mean they’ve never really wanted it in the first place. It’s gotta be something that you find exciting when it gets a bit more challenging, even if it’s something that others find relaxing or boring, like gardening or golf.
Which is why I think each individual are different in finding the thing(s) that could put their mind away from limerence. It could be creating a blog, making a hobbyist train park, to the ones we both thought of as a snore, like the tea ladies or home decorating. Maybe the ladies having tea find getting new gossip or solving other people’s problems as interesting challenges, meanwhile figuring out how to make an ugly couch fit in a small cramped room gives another person a sense of accomplishment.
But I know trying to figure out and find what works to overcome limerence could be a difficult task too. There’s going to be some trial and error with much time + resources wasted. Before this I’ve tried making art (again) and journal writing but in the end, I’ve find out that they were only my “wishful” dreams instead.
The nudge towards the language learning was actually prompted by a random encounter online because we happen to talk about different cultures and languages. So the conversation reminded me that my love for art and journals are actually based on the culture of a particular foreign country. Only then it made me thought that learning their language would make me able to immerse myself further into that old interest mine.
I did at one point learn the language basics 20 years ago as a minor subject but breakup with LO#1 happened soon after. After that for the most part, I’ve forgotten about my core interests because getting jumbled up with what’s truly my interests and wondering if they were LO’s instead. What a mess to untangle from, lol.
Anyway, hope this wall of text makes sense to you but I appreciate your question as it made me think deeper. Good luck in your journey of discovery as well!
That is not a bad idea. I think one of the most seductive aspects of limerence is its utter escape from the almost punishing reality of every day life (get up, go to work, come home, get up, go to work, come home; dishes, laundry, bills, etc.) Can you find something in purposeful living that offers a little bit of joy and escape?
Blue Ivy says
“limerence is a wonderful device for promoting short-term stupid self-interest.” “The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest!”
*IF* limerence gives you happiness, sure, go for it 🙂
For me, the happiness offered by LEs is by far overshadowed by angst, misery, guilt, and above all an overwhelming sense of wasting my time & mental space on what I know is useless. I hate the way I am with LOs… stupider, unfunnier, less confident, self-conscious… that’s not who I want to be.
It is a pattern of serial addiction I would LOVE to get rid of! And this site has been tremendously helpful. Thanks to all my LwL’ers friends!
Soldier on, Marcia! Best of luck on your set project!
Glad the posts are helping, Hope.
The other good thing about running away is that it gives you a good cardio workout to burn off the stress 😉
Limerent Emeritus says
“The other good thing about running away is that it gives you a good cardio workout to burn off the stress.”
Clip of the Day: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4wn4qYPG6C0/TwCZZGYpomI/AAAAAAAAAJ8/6yrffMbBxUU/s1600/Chrlie-Brown-250.jpg
Wait, maybe that wasn’t the point..:)
How did you know? My motto! My family of origin made it into a family joke how non-confrontational and passive I can be. To the extent of calling out Monty Python lines, ‘Run away, run away’ to my retreating backside.
I’ve been working on boundaries lately and saying what I think. Terrifying, but surprisingly effective and liberating! 😀
LOL! So true about the cardio workout! I’ve been meaning to go back and read the link above about purposeful living and goal setting (something I’m not good at doing). Never too late to learn a positive trait 😊
Limerent Emeritus says
Song of the Day: “It’s A Heartache” – Bonnie Tyler (1975)
Every blog deserves a song to read it by!
“Peace through liberation.”
The heart ache hit now a couple months into my LE. It was bizarre. It kept happening. Something would trigger it. Usually a memory or something that reminded me of LO.
I’ve explained limerence to two people, both of whom knew about my struggle to get past LO. Before I understood what it was, I told them how mystifying that I continued to struggle.
Explaining limerence seemed to liberate me in some way.
I referred to it as a mental health condition, right or wrong. It may be chemical in nature but aren’t many of them?
Continued growth says
The heartache is real and continues to surface occasionally despite me being NC for 6 months. I think it is a combination of intense longing for her, which I know will be unfilled, loss of hope, mourning of this idea of being with her that seemed so magical, with portions of guilt and feelings of inadequacy (why couldn’t she have loved me back, why wasn’t I good enough for her?!) This constant dissonance between what seemed like utter magic, and her ultimately not reciprocating. Episodes of occasional uncontrolled weeping and sadness have thankfully become less frequent. Mindfulness, reminding myself these feelings aren’t me, that I am strong and resilient, and focusing on other things going well in my life seem to help some, but man oh man, it is a constant mental battle to rewire those thoughts. It is exhausting. Continually reminding myself when that hope and longing resurfaces that I have a terrible addiction, and that caring and compassion for myself means getting over this, step by step.
Don’t forget to include how it feels for the spouse or SO of a limerent. We’re people too even if we aren’t anything more than a meal ticket or drudge in your eyes.
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
That’s a fair point, Nemesis. Unfortunately, where limerence is concerned there is often plenty of heartache to go around.
Regretful limerent says
Nemisis, having my SO withdraw started my LE. It wasn’t his fault by any means — it was a perfect storm of awful circumstances. Even in the middle of it all, I was trying to figure out how to get myself out of what I had allowed to get out of hand and didn’t know how to control.
It all opened up the path to a better understanding of each other and what we want out of life. It’s been one of the most painful experiences we’ve shared. We’ve learned together about anxious attachment, addiction, codependency, boundaries, and how our childhoods still affect us. Things I’ve needed to deal with and just kept ignoring until the aspects of my personality disrupted our lives in a major way. SO kept asking what the hell happened, and I didn’t have any answers. We do now.
There is much more honesty, better communication, and happiness now. They are now recognizable situations and people types I need to avoid. They are not situations or people I can handle easily.
I have so many regrets. The change in the way I viewed my SO was a huge red flag, and started the way back. I hope you have the patience, Nemesis, to work through all of this muck and mire to a better understanding of each other. It’s worth it if you can.
Another informative and beautifully written piece. Thanks, DR.L! It’s helpful to understand what’s really going in the body when we feel certain very powerful emotions. 😛
Philip Fletcher says
I’m a 74-year old man with severe sight impairment and I’ve been ‘punching above my weight’ with the ladies all my life to the extent where I’m now ‘punch drunk’ and still on my own; me never having been considered worthy enough to be either marriage or partner material due to disability and poverty. I never had a decent paying job. The only reason I discovered this site is because I typed ‘what is heart ache’ into my search engine due to the fact I’m suffering with it on a daily basis now. I HAVE TO SAY THIS IS THE MOST INSIGHTFUL ARTICLE I’ve ever read; if only I’d been aware of this info 50 years ago and learnt how to keep my emotions in check if at all possible. But then I wouldn’t have written all the sad prose and poetry I’ve written over the last 5 decades. All available to view under my user name of philfletcher20 at Allpoetry.com
I’ve never heard of limerence before, is it a medical condition I can look up?