A broken heart is not only bad for you emotionally, it’s bad for you physiologically as well. Here are a few ways in which your brain and body can suffer from a breakup, just as badly as your feelings.
What’s My Name Again?
According to assistant professor Erica Slotter at Villanova University, relationships change our sense of self. We internalise as part of ourselves some of the things we share in a relationship.
Couples who are heavily invested in each other spend so much time together and share a multitude of experiences, from friends and hobbies to future plans, that when the relationship ends it can feel like you lose a part of who you are.
Slotter says, ‘We know that relationships change the way we think about ourselves. When a relationship ends, that sense of self ends.’
The 2009 study, which she led, showed that after a breakup people experienced a significant change in their self-perception and changed their beliefs, values or appearance.
So, if you have ever made changes to your life after a relationship ended, do not fret, it is perfectly normal.
It’s All in Your Head
That gut-wrenching feeling and distress you feel after seeing your ex? That’s not you overreacting.
Psychological research published in 2011 found a link between social rejection and physical pain. People who had experienced an unwanted breakup were brain-scanned in an MRI machine while being shown photos of their exes.
The regions of the brain that activate when you get physically hurt, say a punch in the stomach, lit up like a Christmas tree on the participants’ MRI scans. Your brain is saying, ‘Hey, this really hurts!’ as much as a physical assault would. Thus, seeing your ex is about as good for you as a punch in the guts.
If you cannot avoid your ex, an unenviable fate, you can at least ease the agony of the encounter. Strangely enough paracetamol has been shown to reduce social pain.
Prehistoric Nature Kicks In
Of course, hand-in-hand with the pain of heartbreak comes the stress of the ordeal.
We all know and deal with day-to-day stress. However, the stress induced by a breakup is on another level.
So much so that it can force your body into fight-or-flight mode.
Your body gets physically ready to either fight or run for your life, becoming flooded with epinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that have damaging long-term effects.
Now that would be fine and dandy if you had to run away from a sabre-toothed tiger or woolly mammoth, but it’s not particularly useful when it happens in response to heartbreak.
The hormones cause your muscles to tense and swell leading to pain. If this continues long-term you are at risk of suffering from the myriad problems chronic stress causes.
As if all of that was not enough to deal with, there is a chance a broken heart could, well, literally leave you with a broken heart.
In what is known as broken-heart syndrome, a part of the heart enlarges and ceases to pump blood efficiently while the rest of your heart works normally or even harder.
The symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath, which can lead people to believe they are suffering a heart attack. In rare cases it has proven fatal. So, if you find yourself having these symptoms it would be in your best interest to seek medical attention.
Fortunately, the condition is temporary and the symptoms can be treated. After some days or weeks, the heart returns to its normal function.
It seems suitably serendipitous that time is the best cure for both a broken heart and for broken-heart syndrome.