A psychiatrist's advice to heartbroken patients

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The causes of heartbreak vary from person to person but a common denominator would be the experience of loss. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For every song about being so in love your heart could burst, there’s always one about having your heart ripped out, thrown to the ground, doused in liquid nitrogen, stomped on, and destroyed into a million little pieces. There’s Britney’s “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” and then there’s Whitney’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”

Which is to say that love — and the loss of it — tends to affect human beings in substantial ways, including mental health. Studies have shown heartbreak to be a leading cause of distress among young adults, sometimes leading to self-harm, substance abuse, or suicide, with as many as 40 percent reporting to have experienced clinical depression and 12 percent suffering from moderate to severe depression after a breakup.

“Majority of the young adults who consult with [me] are commonly seeking help due to love problems or heartache,” says Dr. Jerome L. Go, a psychiatrist at the Chinese General Hospital and Medical Center. Aside from depression, Go adds that a number of mental illnesses and disorders can be attributed to a broken heart, including adjustment disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to Go, these patients experience minor lifestyle changes, such as appetite disturbances or unusual sleep patterns.

“Some of them cannot eat, or some of them resolve their pains by eating,” he says. “Some of them cannot sleep, cannot concentrate. They feel a lack of motivation to do other things because their mind’s so preoccupied with [what they’re feeling].”

The causes of heartbreak vary from person to person. It could be the result of rejection, they may have been forced to break off a relationship because their parents don’t approve, or someone close to them could have died. But a common denominator would be the experience of loss.

“It can be something that is perceived or real,” says Go. “[When it is perceived], it may not seem apparent, but to that person, it is a loss of security, or loss of romance.”

He further posits that people, especially adolescents, have an emotional need to connect with others, and when this need is not met, they tend to take it to heart.

“When you’re a teenager, that is a stage in your life where you want to belong to a particular group, or perhaps to somebody, the smallest unit of which is a relationship or a romantic partner.”

Heartache, or lovesickness, has yet to be acknowledged as a serious threat by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, but it does recognize patterns of grief and loss. Therefore, it’s not only a matter of when to seek psychiatric help, but also if it’s necessary, as one’s sadness over a situation does not always equate to depression.

“It’s best that you keep yourself surrounded by people. You may not exactly get the attention or the romance that you desire from the object of your affection, but at least you have someone [to lean on].” — Dr. Jerome Go

Go suggests paying attention to changes in behavior to gauge whether therapy is necessary.

“Many times patients do not openly say or admit especially in our society that they are experiencing a mental issue or an emotional issue,” he says. “It’s very important for parents to know these red-flag signs.”

Such indicators include a typically social person preferring to isolate himself, or a loud and vibrant personality shifting to quiet and withdrawn. If the prospective patients and those closest to them are able to take note of these changes and take them seriously, they may come to the realization or decision that they might already need professional help.

Once his patients open up to him and point to heartbreak as a cause of distress, Go recommends strategies and supportive measures to ease their pain. To him, coping is the most important aspect.

“Despite their losses, there are [other things] going for them, like work, their family and friends,” he says. “You may have lost one, but you must not lose more. It’s the principle of making sure that you nurture what you still have.”

He cites Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler’s five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — to illustrate a patient’s experience in eventually being able to come to terms with their reality.

“Most patients do not follow the exact same route,” he says. “Some can actually jump from denial to acceptance right away. When they consult with [psychiatrists,] they may even be at different stages already.”

He may make use of certain special techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and supportive psychotherapy, but Go stresses that moral support is still the answer to complete recovery from heartache. “It’s best that you keep yourself surrounded by people,” he advises. “You may not exactly get the attention or the romance that you desire from the object of your affection, but at least you have someone [to lean on].”

The presence of loved ones can go a long way for patients who might be feeling disconnected or lonely.

“They should know that there are people around them who support them and understand the pain, who are willing to listen,” adds Go. “No matter how repetitive their stories or [mood] cycles become.” It’s comforting and reassuring, he says, to know that people are there for you, and that one person who disregards you does not cancel out the many others who care about you.

There’s no tried-and-tested way to measure progress when it comes to a broken heart, and it’s only normal to relapse or feel OK one day and feel morose the day after. Go sometimes makes use of rating scales to quantify levels of depression, for example, but he prefers taking the subjective route. That is, simply asking, “How are you?” and going from there.

People going through heartbreak and depression tend to resort to negative thoughts about the people around them, their environment, and themselves. This thinking tends to be one-directional, and undergoing therapy can help in a big way by offering different sides and points of view.

“Therapy helps by changing the cognitive aspect of the person as well as the behavioral,” Go says. “What’s important is to change the frame of mind, the way the person thinks, and highlight [the positives and] what they still have.”

He concludes: “We do this in the hope that they will realize that life is not over. That hope is not gone, and life must go on.”