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Ester Marsh column: There is more to a broken heart

Missing someone doesn’t just mean your “heart” is missing them. You actually have physiological and neurological changes. It could be the loss of a loved one (human or pet), missing a loved one who lives far away, or a relationship that has ended and that person is no longer in your life.

It’s hard, and I personally have experienced this and still do. Living for two months right where my side of the family lives was so special, even during the time when I lost my mom. Our family’s bond has always been strong but being truly in each others’ life makes it very special. So not only the loss of our mom but also that big blue ocean between us makes it challenging for us at times. I am very fortunate to have an amazing support system and a job that truly makes such an impact in so many lives, including my own. So what is going on beside a “heavy heart” or “broken heart” that can put us in such dark place?

Well, feeling good about people, life and things stimulates our brain to produce certain chemicals and hormones. Oxytocin, which is also called the “bonding drug,” is released. When the body releases oxytocin, it also releases the hormones dopamine and serotonin. You might have heard of these before but let me explain:

Oxytocin plays a big role in the brain as a neurotransmitter. It helps with social bonding and sexual reproduction in both genders. The behavior between a mother and her newborn child, empathy, generosity and sexual pleasure are all affected by oxytocin. Dopamine, which is also released by the hypothalamus (located in the brain) plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. By feeling really good about something (a really good meal or an amazing workout), dopamine is released. Serotonin, another powerful hormone, is known to balance your mood, memory processing, sleep, appetite and digestion to just name a few.

I believe most of us have experienced the “honeymoon phase” at least once. Or being on “cloud nine.” You feel great in your relationship, you are strong and anything thrown at you, you throw right back. Including a great workout, you feel you can conquer the world. Well, what happens when that goes away? Your body actually stops producing (it’s so little you are not noticing them) these important hormones so you are missing that significant part (human, pet or happenings) in your life, not just emotionally but also physically. So, the lack of those hormones throws everything out of whack. It can mimic symptoms of depression and anxiety. You don’t always have to have a loss or breakup to prevent the release of those hormones. After the honeymoon stage where we live in euphoria, things calm down. We still love that person but it has gone to another level (hopefully the better one!). These are the times people are seeing that other person without all those extra hormones and sometimes that can really be an eye opener.

So to stimulate those hormones, someone has to go above and beyond. A special date night, girls’ or guys’ night out, etc. can give you that boost to stimulate the brain to produce an abundance of those wonderful hormones. The lack of serotonin can cause mood swings, appetite changes and sleep problems. Decreased dopamine can cause lack of motivation or interest allowing someone to fall into depression. So a broken heart also has true physical impact. So what can we do about it? Try to find things to distract you from what started this in the first place. Find other things to stimulate your brain to release these important hormones. I know teaching my classes really helps to put a smile on my face and receive the “feel good” hormones (thank you, my Esterettes!). And of course taking care of my horse Sonny and riding him absolutely stimulates those hormones. We all know that “time heals all wounds”… it actually is true. We don’t forget — we learn to live with it.

As many of you know, I speak numerous languages (used to be fluent in four before I came to the U.S.). In French, they don’t say “I miss you,” they say “Tu me manques” which means “you are missing from me.” I agree with that translation. Moving forward, I hope whatever event(s) happened in your life to diminish the oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, you will find a way to get them back by doing special things that make you feel good. See, it’s not just your “heart” that will start to feel good, it’s your mind, body and soul that will benefit as well.

Ester H Marsh, H&F is fitness director at the JF Hurley Family YMCA

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