Can Your Heart Really Break? 6 Things That Happen To Your Body During A Breakup, According To Science

Sleepless nights, no appetite, acne breakouts, stomach pain, inability to leave the house. Sound familiar? Getting dumped is one of the most excruciating feelings you'll experience in a relationship. While you probably don't downplay the intense sadness and grieving period following heartbreak, you my be unaware of the physical effects of a breakup. It may be surprising, but there are a lot of things that happen to your body during a breakup.

Most of the health issues that arise in the midst of heartache are the results of raised levels of cortisol within your body. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is released in much higher levels during emotional and lifechanging events, such as the end of relationships. In an interview with Huffington Post,  Kathleen Hall of the Mindful Living Network said, "Stress is caused when you feel out of control," and the depression and uncertainty following heartbreak is one of the harder things “ ...you can possibly go through. That's going to cause the body to have a fight-or-flight response of fear and panic." This fight-or-flight response lasts for some time after a breakup. Just think back to how long it has taken you to move on in the past.

Thankfully, breakups aren't all bad and the pain doesn't last forever. Scientific studies show that dwelling in your heartache has eventual psychological benefits, and there are lots of fun ways to survive the misery. But until you've emerged stronger than before, it is important to be aware of the real hurt you are likely to experience so that you'll validate your feelings and provide the self-care that you deserve. Here are six of the ways that breakups affect your health:


1. Heartbreak is physical.

Five years ago, a study from the Journal of Neurophysiology explained why a broken heart causes actual physical pain - a stomach drop, a headache, nausea, full-body ache, etc. In the study, when heartbroken subjects were shown photographs of their former beloveds, researchers found that their longing emotions created activity in the same part of the brain "that registers physical pain." This happens because emotional pain and physical pain have neural pathways in common. Eventually, your left prefrontal cortex becomes engaged as well, and this is the part of the brain that deals with "reassessment and evaluation," allowing you to process and understand the breakup, and to finally move on.

Moreover, the physical feeling of heartbreak can be described as your "body's instinct to simultaneously speed up and slow down your hearbeat." Can you think back to your last experience of heartbreak? 'Cause this description of the unique sorrow feels pretty damn accurate to me.

2. You may experience withdrawal symptoms.


In the wise words of Kesha, "Your love, your love, your love is my drug." Really tho. The Journal of Neurophysiology released a study from Stony Brook University in which 15 recently dumped men were asked to complete basic math equations after viewing pictures of their exes. As researchers studied their brain activity, it was revealed that the exposure to memories of their ex-lovers activated regions of their brain "also afire in cocaine addicts who are experiencing physical pain while going through withdrawal." Instead of becoming addicted to a specific substance, many people become addicted to their romantic relationships since they are so intertwined with their daily lives. The brain becomes accustomed to the other partner's presence, much like it may become accustomed to intake of a certain drug. Upon that partner's sudden exit from your life, neural circuits have to readjust to your ex's absence. Thankfully, withdrawal ends as time passes and the body returns to its previous state. Eventually, your body will remember how it functioned before your partner was in your life.

3. It's hard to get a good night's sleep.

You're already up all night endlessly replaying memories of the first time your ex kissed you, and if you're used to sharing a bed with your partner at night, it's even harder to sleep. Combine this loneliness with a stressed-out nervous system and heart rate, and shut eye seems nearly impossible. But it will pass. With time, it will pass.


4. Your appetite changes.


Heartbreak has a profound effect on appetite, either significantly increasing or decreasing it. The effects of the cortisol hormone on your brain and nervous system are responsible once again. Stress leads to salty and sweet cravings and, incidentally, regular consumption of those kinds of foods causes cortisol levels to get even higher. Incessant snacking may be a temporary comfort, but it can make you feel more stressed or negatively affect your health.

If your body doesn't react with increased cravings, it may instead react by having no appetite at all. Your nervous system is working hard to process all of that cortisol, and your digestion responds by slowing down. This means an upset stomach and lack of appetite. Similarly, the weight loss may negatively affect your comfort, self-esteem, and health. No food also means no energy, and you need a lot of energy to survive a broken heart.

5. More stress = even more digestive issues


Speaking of digestive system reactions, while a diminished appetite is a symptom of short-term, acute stress, long-term stress can lead to much more serious digestive issues. Divorce or the breakup of lengthy relationships creates scenarios where long-term stress may arise, in which indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and heartburn can develop. Exercise can help reduce the physical effects of long-term stress.

6. Your immune system weakens, and you're susceptible to more illnesses.

That pesky spike of cortisol also creates a weakened immune system, so you might have to blow your nose not only from bouts of crying, but from a cold and flu, too. If you already have health issues, like asthma or stomach cramps, they can flare up. Psychoneuroimmunologists have published numerous studies finding links between emotional health and immune system strength. However, if you are aware of the physical toll that lost love will take on you, it should hopefully be easier to protect your fragile self from the emotional storm.

Images: karin and the camera/Flickr; Giphy (6)

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