Florence’s health deteriorated after divorce, until she learnt the science of heartbreak

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Florence’s health deteriorated after divorce, until she learnt the science of heartbreak

By Evelyn Lewin
This story is part of the May 22 edition of Sunday Life. See all 12 stories.

Florence Williams used to think her friends were being “melodramatic” when they bemoaned a relationship breakdown. “And then, when it happened to me, I was like, ‘Oh, now I understand,’ ” she says. “It really shakes you to your core. It challenges your self-concept and sense of security. It’s very destabilising and frightening, as well as terribly sad.”

Do the things that help you calm down, whether that’s being in nature or being with your friends, moving and exercising, breathing and meditating, says Florence Williams.

Do the things that help you calm down, whether that’s being in nature or being with your friends, moving and exercising, breathing and meditating, says Florence Williams.Credit:Stocksy

The road to her divorce started when Florence was 48. She was working as a science journalist and author while raising two teenagers with her husband of 25 years, with whom she thought things were “pretty solid”.

That was, until Florence stumbled on an email her husband had written to another woman, professing his love for her. A few years later, they divorced.

Florence knew that adjusting to single life after a long-term marriage would be challenging. However, she was thrown by how badly the heartbreak knocked her off her feet. She found it physically painful and was surprised when her health deteriorated, too.

As a science journalist, Florence began researching why a relationship breakdown can be so physically devastating. This led to her penning the book Heartbreak, a personal and scientific exploration of the issue.

The reason heartbreak hurts so much, she discovered, is because our brains process social pain in the same centres it processes physical pain.

Our brains process social pain in the same centres it processes physical pain.

We also don’t make a distinction between being rejected in love and being literally abandoned in the wild. So when we experience heartbreak, Florence says, “our nervous system kicks into high gear in preparation for danger”.

That causes a flood of the stress hormone, cortisol. Maintaining high cortisol levels for a long time can lead to inflammation, Florence says, “which can really set us up for a number of illnesses and diseases”.

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Separation strategist Rachael Scharrer says people are often blindsided by how deeply heartbreak can affect their life, which can lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

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Florence yearned for ways to alleviate her suffering. She tried a number of strategies, from divorce workshops to embarking on a solo wilderness journey, but says there are a few simple methods that can help.

Switching off that “agitated fight or flight” state is key, says Florence. “So, do the things that help you calm down, whether that’s being in nature or being with your friends, moving and exercising, breathing and meditating … because you’re not going to be able to heal if your body’s still freaked out.”

Give yourself time to grieve, too. “Heartbreak is a loss,” Scharrer says. “Don’t feel rushed or pressured by other people to ‘get over it’ in any set time or way.” Try not to ruminate over what happened as you grieve, she adds, as that can prolong the pain.

When you’re feeling low, Florence recommends reaching out to loved ones for support. Finding others who are going through a similar experience (try support groups) can also help you feel less alone. You might also consider seeking professional support.

And finding a sense of direction can be a game changer. Seven years after Florence discovered that email, she’s now “doing really well”.

“I’ve found purpose and meaning in helping other people manage their heartbreak,” she says. “And I’m much more comfortable with uncertainty and allowing joy and beauty into my heart.”

To read more from Sunday Life magazine, click here.

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