Medicine for heartbreak

February 19, 2020 · Print This Article

This Saint Valentine’s day, I happened to be in the city where his bones rest, Dublin, Ireland. As I stood at the airport arrivals entrance waiting for a friend, red roses and kisses were being exchanged like they were going out of fashion.

Since love was in the air, I was curious to read of a new drug that could help us get over our ex. Apparently, this blood pressure drug helps ease the painful memories of the one you once called ‘the one’.

A cure for heartbreak, I thought. Now there’s a drug worth making. Or is it?

Many of us know the pain of emotional loss that comes from a break-up. Our memories lock us in a prison of sadness and grief that seems, at times, inescapable. But those days of Kleenex boxes by the bedside and evenings of comfort eating may well be a thing of the past. Enter propranolol – a beta blocker – aptly named as researchers claim it can help block painful memories, or more accurately, resave the memories without the emotional sting.

So how does it work?

Brain science tells us that factual memory is saved in the brain’s hippocampus, but the emotional aspect of the memory is saved in the amygdala. The heartbroken person is asked to write a detailed account of their emotional experience and read it aloud. The drug is taken an hour before this reading. Then, as the person relives the traumatic memory, the propranolol targets the amygdala inhibiting its “reconsolidation” and surpassing its pain. A memory recalled under the influence of the medication will then be “saved” by the brain in its new, less emotional version.”[1] There you have it, time to put the Kleenex away.

But is forgetting the heartbreak of a break-up the healthiest way to go about dealing with the pain?

I don’t know, but my gut and experience tell me otherwise. There’s something that makes me question the artificial (a pill) soothing or altering of the natural (emotions); using artificial synthesis to heal a very deep human experience. Emotions are so much of the fabric of what it is to live and learn as a human. I’m not sure that avoiding pain is an ideal that should be pursued to such lengths. After all, isn’t pain a teacher and guide to our future selves – a hard but merciful voice of wisdom?

We can all see the wisdom in externalising trauma through writing and speaking. Shakespeare, a man endued with insights into the human condition above most, said well, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break”.

Though in trying to create a pill to numb the pain, I wonder whether we are missing a more effective way of healing from our heartbreak. Is there not a more natural medicine available?

I once read something Alan Paton, an anti-apartheid activist, said that made me think. “There is a hard law…”, he said, “when an injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive”. Could forgiveness be a better pill to take when dealing with the hurt from an emotional break-up?

A few years ago, I studied at the well-known mental health clinic, Tavistock and Portman. I was intrigued to learn of the growing attention and use of the idea of forgiveness in the counselling world. This often-shunned idea because of its ‘religious’ connotations was being explored with fresh eyes because of its efficacy in patients’ healing from broken relationships. I wanted to learn more.

Consequently, I took a more bespoke counselling course which led me to Everett Worthington Jr., a leading expert in the psychology of forgiveness, who shares the “REACH” model for forgiving someone who has behaved wrongly. It goes like this:

R – Recall the hurt

E – Empathise

A – Altruistic Gift of Forgiveness

C – Commit Publicly to Forgive

H – Hold On to Forgiveness

Often emotionally painful memories get replayed because we harbour anger and sometimes bitterness for another person (with good reason, too). But that unforgiveness is often born out of an inability or unwillingness to empathise with an offender. In contrast, Worthington shares that “experiencing empathy for the transgressor is the first arduous step” [2] in the potential for forgiveness. Here’s another way of explaining that kind of empathy: “You did something I have never done, and I am deeply hurt by it, but I’ve done some bad things too so I can begin to understand how this might have happened”.[3]

Forgiveness can be a pill that releases you from the prison of pain. It brings us freedom. It is the medicine that says, ‘I no longer have to be a victim to my experiences’.

If you would like to learn more about forgiveness and the power it can have in your life, then please reach out and let us know at the below email address.

Richard Fowler

Richard is editorial assistant at Because

[2] Sin and Grace in Christian Counselling, by Mark R. McMinn (2008), published by InterVarsity Press. Page 45.
[3] Ibid.
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