Recovering from a breakup can be hard work. And it’s not just in your head — there can be physical effects, too.
“I believe 100 percent that a broken heart and emotional pain can negatively affect physical health,” says Courtney Nesbitt, L.C.S.W., who practices individual, couples, and group therapy. “The mind is a very powerful organ and heartbreak is a very powerful emotion. When the two combine, it can certainly produce a physical reaction.”
Though experts agree that a breakup can cause physical pain and other health effects, the “why” isn’t clear.
Recent research has found that people who have recently been through a breakup experience similar brain activity when shown photos of their loved one as they do when in physical pain. Researchers concluded that rejection, and emotional and physical pain, are all processed in the same regions of the brain.
According to author Meghan Laslocky, who has written books about heartbreak, this could be because both the sympathetic and parasympathetic activation systems are triggered simultaneously.
The parasympathetic system is the part of your nervous system that handles relaxed functions like digestion and saliva production. It slows the heart rate and breathing. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, gets the body ready for action. It’s the “flight or fight” response that sends hormones rushing through the body to increase heart rate, and wake up your muscles. When both are turned on simultaneously, it stands to reason that the body would experience discomfort — possibly even chest pains.
Though we may not know exactly why heartbreak affects our physical bodies the way it does, the effects are many and can be debilitating.
“I’ve even experienced patients who have had a stroke or heart attack from the stress of a breakup,” says Nesbitt, who cautions that although these are extreme cases, “they illustrate how strongly we experience emotional pain.”
Jennifer Kelman, licensed clinical social worker and life coach, says that heartbreak can lead to appetite changes, lack of motivation, weight loss or weight gain, overeating, headaches, stomach pain, and a general sense of being unwell. Treating the effects of heartbreak while allowing the person to mourn the loss of a relationship can be a tricky balance.
“Depression, anxiety, and withdrawal from friends, family, and usual activities are some of the most common emotional reactions to heartache after a breakup,” Kelman says. “It can be a catch-22 because while we want an individual to feel what they feel, and mourn this loss, we also do not want them to slip into isolation, depression, and anxiety.”
Kelman suggests that staying active even when you don’t want to, maintaining proper eating habits, and engaging with the people in your social circle can help minimize the risks of ill health due to a breakup.
“Unfortunately, the only remedy for heartbreak and emotional pain is time,” adds Nesbitt. We often try to hang onto a relationship afterwards, only prolonging the pain. “Unless there are children involved,” she recommends, “the best option is to refrain from contact with the person; that includes on social media.”