Heartbroken? Bestselling Author Florence Williams on the Science Behind the Pain, Plus Tips on How to Heal
As anyone who’s ever loved will tell you, heartbreak is par for the course, whether due to death, divorce, a breakup, estrangement—the reasons are endless. Yet what many of us don’t talk about as freely is the impact of that heartache on our psyches and our physical bodies.
Florence Williams wants us to have that conversation.
For Williams, it’s personal. After her husband left their 25-year marriage, she experienced everything from sleeplessness and stomach pains to heart palpitations and even Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition she was told might’ve been triggered by the emotional trauma of her divorce. So, the award-winning science writer interviewed researchers and therapists to learn more about how, exactly, heartbreak and loneliness impact the body and mind. What she discovered is in her bestselling book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey.
This week, when love is being celebrated in full force, we wanted to make sure those who’ve ever lost love feel seen, too. Which is why we asked Williams to talk about the science of heartbreak and share her hard-won advice on how to navigate the emotional and physical pain when it happens to us.
A CONVERSATION WITH FLORENCE WILLIAMS
What’s been the response to your book? What have you heard most often from readers?
People reach out to me often and say, Thank you. I feel seen. Now I understand why I got sick or what happened to my body. I don’t feel as alone.
No matter what your heartbreak looks like, it’s reassuring to know you’re not a freak or a loser if you take it hard. We’re mammals, and we’re supposed to take the loss of attachment hard. Our wiring is very much set up to help us take heartbreak very seriously.
Heartbreak is a big deal. It’s a big deal for our physical health. It’s a big deal for our mental health.
We need to treat heartbreak like the important event it is.
When people come to you for advice on navigating heartbreak, what do you tell them?
First, it’s important to get out of fight-or-flight, because that is what causes a lot of damage to our health. It also keeps us from sleeping and makes us feel kind of strung out. In the book, I describe it like a buzzsaw without any wood to cut; like you’re really amped up. It’s because you don’t feel safe anymore. You feel kind of alone in the woods, looking over your shoulder for threats.
So, what are the things that you can do to help you calm down? It’s going to be a little bit different for everyone. For me, it was going for walks in the woods, especially with friends. Breathing and yoga and meditation—all those things you hear about are also very helpful because they can help us feel calmer and safer.
Next, ask what’s going to help you feel less alone in your pain. We need connection. You might reach out to people who have gone through heartbreak before or spend time with people who love you and who can help reassure you while your own self-esteem has fallen through the floor. These people will remind you that you’re still a lovable, wonderful person.
Lead with vulnerability. Sharing some of your pain can be a great way for other people to share theirs. Heartbreak is a universal experience.
Finally, try to make some meaning out of this difficult experience. What lessons can you take going forward? How is your heartbreak helping to open your heart so that you’re a better listener and a better friend and, if you want a romantic relationship, a better partner?
When you were in the throes of heartbreak, was there one practice or piece of information that helped you get a sense of calm or safety?
Something I learned early on, after talking to a psychologist at the University of Utah, was that finding beauty and awe is an unexpected antidote to grief and anxiety. And so, for me, I made it a practice to try to find some beauty every day.
We can train ourselves to cultivate a stronger sense of beauty. When we do that, it takes us out of ourselves—even if momentarily—and helps us remember that there is this big, beautiful world out there, one that we would once again like to be a part of. We feel connected to the world around us when we tune into beauty.
I think this is a very underappreciated piece of advice and one I wish more people knew about it. It’s very simple: Cue yourself to go out and look for some beauty. Then, when you find it, really sit with it for a few breaths.
When was the last time you were overcome with awe and sat in beauty?
I live in Denver, Colorado, and we just had a big snowstorm. I bundled up and went out with my dog and as I walked under the trees, I became so enamored looking at the way the snow was clumping to different kinds of branches.
There were red berries, there were blackberries, there were pine needles, and the snow was sitting on these tree branches in different ways. As I would pass a tree, I would think, What is the snow doing? How is it reflecting light? I got really into it. It was a fun little practice.
Have you experienced heartbreak again, since you wrote your book?
I would say the kind of heartbreak I’ve experienced has been a little bit different. It’s been about the climate. It’s been about the pandemic. It’s been about my kids leaving home for college and becoming an empty nester. Life throws us lots of griefs, large and small, at us all the time. Some of them are collective, and some of them are individual.
I feel like I am in some ways more sensitive to pain and grief than I used to be. But I don’t consider that a problem. I actually consider it a symptom of my heart being more open and more sensitive. In some ways, I have a greater capacity for love than I used to. And with love comes pain. That’s just the way it is. But I think if we can remember what it is that makes the world beautiful in the first place, we can learn to let all of those difficult and complex emotions into our hearts at the same time.
If we can find meaning from our past heartbreaks, it not only helps us make sense of what happened, it can also inspire us to help other people and fight the fights that need to be fought to make this world a better place.
Florence Williams, a Colorado-based journalist and retreat leader, is the author of Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey and The Nature Fix.