Shocking physical effects of heartbreak: the pain isn’t just in your head

Obviously, the rejection of breaking up just plain sucks. No one likes to be told they’re unwanted or to realize they “failed” in their relationship, regardless of the situation. Heartbreak can be emotional train wreck but, when an intense emotional loss is experienced the pain often expresses itself as physical symptoms as well. Losses like breaking up, death of a loved one, loss of a pet or another similar situation, trigger changes in your brain and body.

For instance, both emotional and physical pain are experienced in the same part of the brain, even when they occur separately. Our brain’s pain processing center handles both types of pain, which explains one reason our emotional anguish can spill over into the physical world and vice versa. It’s not uncommon for patients diagnosed with heart disease or having suffered a non-lethal heart attack or stroke to subsequently suffer from depression. Pain can, and frequently does, cross the emotional-physical threshold. Sometimes this transcendence happens with the help of hormones.

When we’re in love or content with our loves, our body keeps a steady stream of dopamine and oxytocin flowing. These promote happiness, a sense of love, feelings of belonging and they’re addicting. Should our contentment or relationship end, the production of our happy hormones ceases and we’re suddenly thrown into withdrawal. That’s why after a breakup, it’s so tempting to reconcile with the ex. The brain is desperately seeking another hit of the good stuff. We don’t know how to act because the hormone balance has shifted.

This off-kilter feeling combined with external stressors like having to find a new place to live, adjusting to single life, or feelings of loneliness ramps up production of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. These in turn redirect blood flow to muscles, preparing the body for survival mode which is helpful when decisive, short term action is needed but not as helpful when we’re enduring long-term emotional trauma. The continual production of these stress hormones over time leads achy muscles and stiffness.

Should heartbreak be especially sudden or traumatic, the physical symptoms can in turn be especially severe. One theory on the physical manifestation of heartbreak suspects that such an event triggers both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems within the body. Essentially this pits the “fight or flight” response and stress hormone production against the more relaxed maintenance system, effectively telling your heart to react in two opposite manners. Clearly, that could trigger physical pain.

Although the medical community isn’t entirely sure why it happens, it occurs regularly enough that it has a name, broken heart syndrome. Also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, it’s typically triggered by a sudden, emotionally stressful event. Most patients diagnosed are older women who appear to be suffering from a heart attack, but after examination, had healthy cardiovascular systems. The only physical evidence of their symptoms were elevated stress hormone levels — two to three times greater than the average heart attack victim and seven to 34 times greater than normal day-to-day levels.

Be assured though, the average heartbreak or loss scenario will not lead to a medical crisis, especially if proactive steps are taken to process and heal. It’s important to take care of yourself even when you don’t feel like it. Eat regularly and healthily, exercise regularly and be social. Being with people you care about and doing things you enjoy stimulates dopamine production and helps ease both mental and physical symptoms. Most of all, be patient. Time does indeed heal all wounds.

— Embrace hope.

What physical symptoms of heartbreak have you felt? Did they surprise you? How did you work through your loss?

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Rebounz: a start-up with a mission to instill hope in people experiencing mental health struggles around self-worth, grief or uncertainty. www.rebounz.com Want to receive updates? Join our mailing list.

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