In the wake of a breakup, you might say that you’re “heartbroken”, a phase characterized by deep sadness and loss. The feelings are sharp and intense, but are they just feelings?
Research shows that the gut wrenching, kick-to-the-stomach feeling that comes after losing someone you love is not just an emotional experience; the effects of a broken heart are grounded in real physiological changes.
To understand how the pain is processed, neuroscientists at Columbia University looked at brain activity in unmarried people who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the previous six months. Participants were asked to look at pictures of friends and exes while being touched with a hot probe. Interestingly, the pictures of the exes and the hot probe caused the same parts of the brain to light up. The pictures of friends had no effect. This study revealed that the part of the brain that processes physical pain also processes the pain associated with emotional loss, and your body will respond in many unfortunate ways in the wake of pain.
After a breakup, a heart may temporarily enlarge while the rest of the heart functions normally or with even more force. This condition is called stress-induced cardiomyopathy also known as broken heart syndrome. Researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center noted an especially precarious window for developing a heart problem: During the first 24 hours after experiencing loss, a person’s risk of suffering from a heart attack increases 20X.
According to the American Heart Association, broken heart syndrome is similar to experiencing a heart attack. Symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain, but no clogged arteries, a characteristic of a traditional heart attack.
Unfortunately, your heart isn’t the only place that will experience stress in the wake of a break up.
Breakouts can be attributed to many things—diet, hormones, cosmetics—but the stresses associated with a breakup can also send your skin to a bad place. Researchers at Wake Forest University studied 94 students in Singapore to isolate the causes of breakouts. They found that breakouts were 23 percent more likely to occur during periods of high emotional strain.
Some people experience hair loss after losing a partner. The emotional stress can trigger an auto-immune condition which attacks your hair follicles or increases the production of androgen, the chief cause of female pattern baldness. Luckily, this issue is only temporary, and as you recover from your break up, your hair should grow back.
After a break up, the body will produce an influx of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. These stress hormones can help you react quickly in dangerous, short-term situations, but in longer term traumatic situations, these hormones can exhaust your muscles. The extra cortisol will tell your body to send more blood to you muscles, but with no physical outlet, the muscles will swell and feel sore.
The cortisol produced in the wake of a break up will also wreak havoc on your digestive track. The extra cortisol will divert blood away from your GI, causing irregularity. If your stomach is already sensitive, you might experience additional cramping or diarrhea.
Best ways to counteract the nasty effects of a break up?
Endorphins. Curb those wild stress hormones by pulling yourself off the couch and breaking a sweat. “Exercise also leads to the release of brain chemicals like endogenous opioids that can create feelings of contentment,” says Dr. Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. “It may even get your dopamine flowing.” The stress stemming from a painful break up is real, and physical activity is the best way to help your body release and process the pain.