If you’ve ever been through a breakup, you already know the experience can be devastating. Between the crushing sadness and painful loneliness, it’s enough to make anyone feel blue.
According to scientific research, a breakup is considered one of life’s most stressful events. You probably know of their emotional effects, but were you aware that breakups can carry physical consequences?
They absolutely can, and in more ways than you might think.
Hornet spoke with Frank Moore, a Chicago-based psychotherapist who works with men and women seeking guidance in the immediate aftermath of a breakup.
“There’s a reason for the confusion, difficulty thinking, problems talking and carb cravings. It’s called the ‘fight or flight’ response, and it’s a natural reaction to extreme stress,” Moore says.
That “fight or flight” response is a kind of primitive, internal reaction that kicks in automatically whenever we feel threatened.
Conventional wisdom holds this response is usually associated with a person’s physical circumstance, like being chased by a bear. But, according to Moore, an emotional trauma can also trigger this reaction.
“Breakups are viewed as a stressor by the human body. It doesn’t discern whether the source of that stress comes from a broken heart or mugger. Either way, the body is going to respond the same. Examples include shakiness, feeling cold, dry mouth, pale skin and sometimes sweating,” Moore says.
He adds, “In cases where a person experiences stress because of something transient, like being chased, the body’s response is usually temporary. But in the case of breakups, the effects of stress are more enduring. Over the course of time, this can have a cumulative effect. When left untreated, some people experience clinical forms of anxiety and even depression.”
Using the “fight or flight” response as a backdrop, let’s look at five ways a breakup can affect your body.
1. Your eating and sleeping patterns may change.
Hormonal fluctuations can occur in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. These can trigger a variety of symptoms, including problems with sleep and changes in appetite.
As the body tries to adapt, the brain sends signals to the adrenal gland. This triggers a flood of cortisol that tells the digestive system to slow down. An upset stomach, cramping, diarrhea and constipation can sometimes be an unpleasant result.
As a tool for coping, some people reach for comfort foods. Examples include carb-heavy foods like ice cream or donuts. Not only do such things help the person feel full, they also provide a shot of needed energy.
Problems with sleep can also happen after a breakup, including hypersomnia and insomnia, according to Christina Hibbert, author of the book Who Am I Without You?: Fifty-Two Ways to Rebuild Self-Esteem After a Breakup.
2. You may have cocaine-like withdrawal symptoms.
Depending on the intensity of the relational bond, the decision to split (or being dumped) can trigger withdrawal symptoms that mirror what happens in addiction.
In 2011, researchers at Columbia University presented scientific data that demonstrated cravings kick in soon after a couple splits.
What’s interesting is that the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by a breakup are also the same ones that become activated for cocaine addicts during withdrawal.
Scientists believe that for people in love there is increased production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a compound linked to the mind/body’s reward system.
In the days following a breakup, this area can go into overdrive, causing you to obsess about the person and not receive any rewards. As a result, withdrawal symptoms can occur.
3. Your immune system may be weakened.
If you’ve ever been through a breakup, you probably know the experience can make you feel like crap. It turns out heartbreak can shut down certain parts of the immune system that help to protect against viruses, according to Dr. Tyler Fortman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationship issues.
Speaking to Hornet about this issue, Fortman says, “The body goes into a weakened state after a breakup. It’s not uncommon for someone to feel more physically sensitive and experience pain more intensely.”
4. You may breakout.
According to a research study released in 2007 by Wake University, people are more likely to breakout when experiencing high levels of stress (like a split). This makes sense when one considers the emotional trauma a person experiences in the days and weeks following a relational collapse.
The Wake study proved that ongoing stress can cause inflammation. And in case you didn’t know, acne is considered an inflammatory disease.
5. Your heart may enlarge temporarily.
Believe it or not, your heart can temporarily enlarge after a breakup, according to material published by The American Heart Association (AHA).
It’s called broken heart syndrome, a condition that can have serious consequences, like heart muscle failure. Per the AHA website, “A part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.”
While data suggests this syndrome primarily affects women, men can also be impacted. The good news is the enlargement is only temporary, happening only once to a person during their lifetime.