Anyone who has ever suffered from a broken heart knows how painful it can be. But the hurt goes well beyond feeling sad. An unwanted breakup or a divorce can actually affect your physical and mental health in several ways, from your eating and sleeping habits to your ability to concentrate and your mood.
“There isn’t a clinical definition for ‘heartbreak’ per se, but people can often experience symptoms of depression after a major event like a breakup or divorce,” Dr. Yasmine Omar, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.
Symptoms of clinical depression include “either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure,” explains Omar. Along with one of those two symptoms, “an individual must have at least five of the following symptoms: unintentional weight loss or weight gain, problems with sleep, changes in movement (moving much faster or slower than usual), fatigue, worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, or suicidal thoughts.”
Omar explains that these symptoms would need to be “significant” and last for at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression to be made. “With that said, these symptoms all fall on a continuum, with varying degrees, so they can still impact someone even if they’re not severe enough to count as clinical depression,” Omar says. “A lot of these symptoms can follow a significant event like a breakup or divorce, whether or not the person experiences clinical depression.”
Along with mood changes, here’s what happens to your body after getting your heart broken:
Activate your audio and click below to explore the effects of heartbreak on the body.
Physical or emotional stress “can make your body feel like it’s being attacked, which leads to our primitive survival mechanism, the flight-or-fight response,” cardiologist Dr. Laxmi Mehta, who is the director of the Lipid Clinics and section director of Preventative Cardiology and Women’s Cardiovascular Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.
These emotionally-charged events cause your body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which temporarily increase your heart rate and constrict blood vessels to get more blood to the body’s core instead of the extremities. Your blood pressure may also temporarily go up because of the stress.
In some cases, a devastating heartbreak, divorce or other loss can lead to a serious health condition actually called broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo syndrome.
Broken heart syndrome can cause sudden chest pain and shortness of breath within minutes or hours of a stressful event, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. For some, it can feel like they’re having a heart attack. If you’re experiencing persistent chest pain or shortness of breath after a stressful event, call 911.
Although the temporary heart condition can be brought on by emotionally stressful life events, it can also be triggered by “severe” physical pain such as after hip surgery or acute gastrointestinal symptoms, notes Mehta.
“It’s really hard to predict who it’s going to happen to and when,” she says. However, the syndrome is more common in women than in men, and it appears to affect people over age 50 or those with a history of anxiety or depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The good news is that, for most people, the condition resolves quickly and without any long lasting effects. “Their heart function normalizes over time,” says Mehta.
However, in a small number of people, the condition can severely weaken the heart muscle, leading to health problems such as potentially life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities (arrhythmias). So while “you can die of a broken heart,” points out Mehta, it’s rare.
The stress of an unwanted breakup can make it hard to focus and concentrate. “Often a breakup challenges our emotional safety and feelings of predictability in our life,” Omar explains. “Our mind needs time to process this and establish a new sense of safety and predictability, which can take time and focus away from other tasks.”
Depending on the person and nature of the breakup, sometimes people “ruminate — or repeatedly think about something in a negative direction — in an effort to get to a conclusion or new understanding,” says Omar. “As opposed to reflection, rumination leads to feeling worse over time and having more difficulty concentrating.”
A breakup can also make you feel like you’re in physical pain: A small study found that when people who recently went through an unwanted breakup were shown photos of their ex-partners, it activated the same areas of the brain as when they were in physical pain.
Your digestive system
After a breakup, you may find that even your favorite foods have lost their appeal, while for others, it’s just the opposite. Here’s why: The stress brought on from a breakup boosts levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to appetite suppression in some people. When your body is in this “fight-or-flight” mode, it temporarily shuts down your appetite. However, if high levels of cortisol persist, that can trigger stress-induced, aka emotional, eating.
“Feeling sad over a breakup can increase or decrease a person’s appetite,” says Omar. “It’s believed that some people eat more when they’re sad as a form of emotional eating, which can temporarily comfort us and lead to the release of ‘reward’ and ‘happy’ neurotransmitters in the brain. Others may eat less because their body is in fight-or-flight mode, which decreases appetite.”
You’re not imagining things if it seems like you’re having a bit of a hard time catching your breath after a breakup. When stress hormone levels are high after the loss of a relationship it can affect your respiratory rate, leading to shortness of breath or faster breathing, according to Mehta. “Some can get anxiety and panic attacks as well,” she says.
If you’re experiencing shortness of breath that’s new or any chest discomfort that’s “concerning,” says Mehta, that warrants a doctor’s immediate attention.
Your immune system
Stress, such as after a breakup, can cause inflammation and weaken the immune system, making people more vulnerable to infections. Stress hormones can decrease the body’s lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that help fight off infection.
Heartbreak can impact your sleep by either making it harder to fall or stay asleep or by causing people to sleep too much, explains Omar.
“People are different in how they cope and respond to stress — some people can sleep more as a form of escape or numbing, so a serious emotional event would lead to more ‘escape sleep,’” Omar explains. “Others might cope differently, thinking more at night and having trouble falling asleep.”
Omar adds: “Even without actively thinking about heartbreak, many individuals might struggle with sleeping because their body is in fight-or-flight mode and doesn’t feel safe.”
How to cope with a breakup
Dealing with the loss of a relationship isn’t easy, but experts say there are things you can do to get through it with your health — both physical and mental — intact.
“Exercise is always a good thing,” Mehta says. “It’s really good for mental health and for health maintenance as well. It can be a stress reliever and can help to get out some of that negative energy. It doesn't have to be going to a gym — it can just be a walk.”
Along with eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, Mehta recommends avoiding using alcohol or any drugs to help cope with the loss. “Try to stay away from crutches like that,” she says.
Mindfulness techniques such as meditation and deep breathing, as well as yoga are “essential,” says Mehta, since they help reduce stress and create calm.
Above all, know that it’s common to feel a variety of emotions after a breakup. “Many people feel rejected, defeated, helpless, and even confused,” says Omar. “Often, there is a mix of emotions because relationships are not ‘all good’ or ‘all bad,’ leading people to feel both positive and negative emotions as they process the ending of a relationship.”
Omar says it’s “normal and healthy to feel waves of mixed feelings like pain, anger, relief, anxiety, and gratitude,” adding: “Leaning into these emotions and understanding why each of them is valid helps us process breakups in a healthy way and prevents them from negatively affecting future relationships.”
However, if you’re having a hard time getting past a breakup or are feeling depressed, experts recommend seeking mental health counseling. “Having someone to talk to in a safe, confidential manner is essential when someone is going through stressful times in their life,” says Mehta.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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