It’s said that you can really never know love or the depths of your feelings until you’ve had your heart broken. No one is immune to feeling hurt, and beyond that a breakup has real, measurable effects on your body. While you’re grieving the loss of your relationship, no matter if you were the dumper or the dumpee, you’re probably unaware of the physical effects of a breakup. It may be surprising, but there are a lot of things that are going on inside you during this tumultuous time, and most of it is due to raised cortisol levels within your body.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and it’s released in much higher levels during emotional and life changing events, such as at the end of a relationship. Kathleen Hall, stress expert and founder of the Mindful Living Network, said in an interview with The Huffington Post, “Stress is caused when you feel out of control,” and the depression and uncertainty following heartbreak is one of the harder things that you have to endure. It can be equated to experiencing a trauma. “That’s going to cause the body to have a fight-or-flight response of fear and panic,” Hall adds.
This fight or flight response may last for some time after a breakup, that as many know, gets better with time. Time is the cure-all to the pain that you’re going through, so take solace in the fact that it won’t last forever. Now is the time to focus on yourself and your mental and emotional health, and making sure you provide yourself with the self-care that you deserve. Here are four ways that breakups affect your health.
1. Physical pain
Do you remember when you first broke up, and your heart dropped into your stomach and you felt physical pain? That’s exactly what heartbreak does to you. A study from the Journal of Neurophysiology explained why a broken heart causes actual physical pain — the stomach drop, a headache, nausea, full-body aches, etc. The study, which appeared in MedicalDaily, found that when heartbroken subjects were shown photographs of their former loves, their longing emotions stimulated activity in the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. The causes of emotional pain and physical pain have neural pathways that are in common.
The article references a BuzzfeedBlue video, titled “What Happens To Your Body During A Breakup?” Eventually what happens is that your left prefrontal cortex becomes engaged, which is the part of the brain that deals with “reassessment and evaluation,” allowing you to finally process, understand, and except the breakup so that you can finally move on. Moreover, that physical feeling of heartbreak, that we all have been privy to, can be described as your body’s instinct to simultaneously speed up and slow down your heartbeat.
2. Withdrawal symptoms
Being in love activates the same portion of the brain as drugs do. A study from Stony Brook University, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology and reported in Psych Central, had 15 recently dumped men complete basic math equations after viewing picture of the exes. As they did this, researchers studied their brain activity, and found 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.”
3. A weakened immune system
When going through a traumatic breakup, your immune system will take a nosedive. “Stress almost immediately affects your immune system — you get colds and the flu,” explains Hall. She adds that autoimmune diseases, in which the body turns against itself, can possibly occur after a divorce or breakup of a longtime relationship, and your immune functioning can be compromised.
The American Psychological Association adds that depression caused by a breakup, induced social isolation, and feelings of loneliness can all contribute to a weakened immune system. The Huffington Post also points out that there is an extensive body of research that shows just how much our emotional well-being can impact our immune systems.
4. Change in sleep, or lack thereof
Going though a breakup can really mess up your sleep pattern. You’re up all night trying to figure out when and how it went wrong, replaying memories of the first time you and your ex kissed. That, combined with the fact that you’re probably used to sharing a bed with your partner, can make it even harder to sleep. Also, add a stressed-out nervous system, high cortisol levels, increased heart rate, and loneliness, and sleep can seem like a forgotten entity that can leave you tossing and turning all night. “In the sleep world, stress is to sleep as yin is to yang — opposite forces that are forever linked,” sleep specialist Dr. Chris Winter told The Huffington Post. “Stress prevents sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and its consequences.”
It’s something that can also become a vicious cycle: If we can’t sleep, we’re stressed, and lack of sleep, in turn, becomes a source of stress. As the days and the weeks pass, your body returns to its normal state, but in the meantime, try to implement good sleeping habits to ward off any extra stress and avoid the cycle while you get back to your pre-breakup self.