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Why heartbreak really hurts: we investigate how splitting up with a partner affect our bodies

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Breaking up is hard to do. But it’s not just our emotions that can feel bruised. From stomach aches to skin breakouts, Stylist investigates the physical pain of parting ways

It might start with a shortness of breath. A paralysing stab in your stomach. A swimming sensation that forces you to find a seat on a packed commuter train. But you are not injured; there’s no visible damage – there are no bruises, no fractures, no blood. Yet something is broken: your heart. And rather than just a cliché – or a troubling state of mind – it seems the effects of this can be painfully physical too.

According to a recent study* of 20,000 cohabiting and married couples, a fifth of us are living in ‘distressed’ relationships, where the strains are deemed to be ‘clinically significant’ at any given time. Yet, when things actually do fall apart for unmarried couples, it can often feel as though the trauma of a break-up (rather than a divorce) is brushed off as an innocuous and inevitable part of life. In fact, whatever status your relationship had, experts now say that a split can impact our health more than we realise. “The impact of a relationship breakdown cannot be underestimated,” says Sara Davison, author of Uncoupling: How To Survive And Thrive After Breakup And Divorce. “A split is the second most traumatic experience of our lives, after the death of a loved one.”

As humans, we are naturally programmed to have a very physical response to life’s stressors. “The body and mind are inextricably linked,” says Dr Mark Silvert, medical director and consultant psychiatrist at The Blue Tree Clinic. “Nightmares, body aches, constant crying and insomnia are all normal after a break-up; the symptoms are very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.”



Our brains are also evolutionarily primed to feel the effects of social rejection. If we experience rejection intensely enough (as might happen if our partner reveals they don’t love us any more), it activates the areas of the brain that deal with physical pain. Research even shows that our bodies are more sensitive to physical pain when we feel rejected (which is why stubbing your toe can be particularly painful if you’re already feeling low).

In short, our brains are not firing optimally when we are in the throes of a break-up, which in turn has a profound effect on our physiology. Some break-ups are even so intense that they can actually alter our genetic make-up. Research at Emory University in the US found that, if prairie voles (who mate for life) are separated from their spouses for just four days, they showed signs of increased stress.

Read on to discover exactly what’s behind your body’s heartbreak response and how to conquer it.


How crushed emotions lead to physical pain

We asked four women about the physical impact of their past break-ups

“I had to take beta-blockers”

Lottie

Lottie Daley, 33, hypnobirthing instructor, Brighton

“For me, break-ups mean real, physical pain. I find them totally traumatising; it’s like grief. My worst was when things ended with my first love. I was 23 and although we’d only been together 10 months, it was very intense. I thought, ‘This is it’.

He’d been distant with me for a few weeks before he finally finished things. I couldn’t eat or sleep. Crying was constant. I felt depressed and had to go and live with my mum because I was in such a bad way.

People would say, ‘Oh you’ll get over it’ but I take splits very hard and my body responds, too. I remember feeling very sensitive, like any knock or bump was painful. The nights were the worst. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d have a racing heart and a tightness in my chest. I went to my GP and I got prescribed Propranolol, a beta-blocker used to treat irregular heart rates and high blood pressure.

It took me a good six months to come out of it but eventually I did.”


“My stomach swelled up and I looked pregnant”

Luna

Luna Afriyie, 30, project management consultant, Coventry

“I had what I call a real ‘crossroads break-up’ in 2014. We’d been together three years when I found out he’d been seeing someone else. Almost straight away a lot of my allergies worsened. I started having really bad candida, eczema and dandruff, which was horrible. My stomach swelled to the extent I looked three months pregnant. I had no idea what was happening.

For about a month I felt sluggish and really up and down in my mood, too. I started feeling nervous around people, even my friends, which had never happened before.

Although I’d get to sleep OK, I’d wake up in the night and not be able to get back to sleep. I started scouring the internet in the early hours of the morning whenever I had insomnia and discovered holistic therapy. I began doing meditation and eating healthier and that made me feel calmer. A few months later everything started to get back to normal. I’m happy to say I’m dating again now.”



“I cried every day for a month”

Isabelle

Isabelle Hung, 34, psychologist, London

“I got divorced in 2013 after two and a half years of marriage; we’d been together for eight years. One day we had a row and I had this realisation that it was never going to work. We were from different cultural backgrounds – he’s Muslim and I’m French-Chinese – and we just didn’t agree on anything.

But the split came as a big shock to both of us. It was really hard to accept. I totally lost my appetite. I felt like I couldn’t swallow. In the space of three weeks I lost a stone and a half. Physically, I felt weak and drained.

I’d cry non-stop every day for a month. I’d hide in the toilets at work so that I could have a cry. I had aches in my neck, I got acne and a rash on my face and would get the shakes.

It took me nearly a year to feel like myself again after a lot of therapy. But I was inspired to set up a website for people going through break-ups so they know they’re not alone. I’m now engaged to someone wonderful and I see my divorce as something I had to go through to be where I am now.”


“My hair fell out in clumps”

Pola

Pola Pospieszalska, 35, personal trainer, London

When my partner broke up with me in 2009, after five years, I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I was terrified of being alone. I didn’t leave my bedroom for two weeks. I just smoked and barely ate. I remember one day all I could keep down was a pitta bread. Everything shut down. My periods stopped, my nails broke off and my hair started falling out in clumps. It was like a trauma, really.

After a fortnight, I managed to get out of bed but I couldn’t eat properly for about a year. I lost a lot of weight. I worked in marketing at the time and my work definitely suffered.

In 2012 I had a year and a half long relationship but it didn’t work out. When we broke up I recognised the anxiety and panic setting in, but I realised I had a choice. I could either let this overwhelm me or I could redirect it into something positive. That’s when I became a personal trainer.

I’m single now. It was a painful journey, but ultimately my terrible break-up helped me find a new way of life.”


Anatomy of a break-up

Step by step: what’s happening to your body when you’re at emotional rock bottom

Brain

In 2010, researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey, US, found that weaning yourself off a lost love induced an incredibly similar physical reaction to cocaine withdrawal. This is because, when you’re in love the ‘reward’ part of your brain, which triggers the ‘happy hormone’ dopamine, is very active and leaves your body wanting more. And so when we do split, we’re more likely to binge-eat in an attempt to satisfy the hit our receptors crave (or ‘reward’ ourselves with more alcohol). Chin up, though. Scientists estimate it only takes an average of three months to adjust to the new hormone levels our bodies are working with.

Eyes

It may feel like your eyes will be permanently puffy from constant crying, but letting our emotions out in this way is actually really healthy. Emotional tears are released as part of a two-stage cycle. As your system shifts from ‘fight or flight’ mode to ‘rest and digest’ mode, tears flow, adrenaline levels drop and the body relaxes. Emotional tears actually contain 25% more proteins than non-emotional tears (say, from chopping onions). Because hormones build up to very high levels when the body endures emotional strain, crying ensures that these toxins don’t overwhelm and weaken the immune system. So embrace that snotty sob.

Nose

Ever noticed that every time you go through a break-up you get a cold a couple of weeks later? During times of increased stress, the influx of hormones racing around your body makes it harder for your immune system to be effective, making you all the more susceptible to illness and infection – which, of course, is just what you need when you’re already feeling fragile. Take measures to arm your defences after a break-up with a healthy diet and regular light exercise to increase the activity of helpful immune cells. Zinc tablets have also been proven to boost immune function. Stocking up on oranges is up to you…

Heart

Heartbreak is not just an over-used lyric in love songs. Scientists have found the pain we feel in our hearts when a relationship ends actually triggers the same hormones that cause our heart to speed up and slow down. The American Heart Association also found that some people can suffer a stress cardiomyopathy also known as ‘broken heart syndrome’ – where “a part of your heart temporarily enlarges”, which can lead to temporary heart muscle failure. While it affects a very small number of people, women account for 80% of cases. Thankfully, patients normally heal within days with no residual damage.

Stomach

When your nervous system is facing heavy stress, it tells your digestive system to slow down, causing you to lose your appetite and even feel some pain in the pit of your stomach. This reaction is down to excess cortisol, the stress hormone, which diverts blood away from your digestive tract, leaving you with the feeling that you can’t eat. One study found that taking aspirin during a traumatic time can help balance this excess cortisol.

Skin

Increased adrenaline can mean your body’s biggest organ is on high alert, so you’re prone to rashes, or even a flare-up of eczema, rosacea or psoriasis. When you’re stressed, the turnover of new skin cells also becomes lower, leading to more blocked pores, not to mention what those extra few glasses of ‘break-up wine’ do to your skin. Treat yourself to a facial and eliminate anything that might rub your skin up the wrong way (like fragranced body washes and strong perfumes) while you’re dealing with that other irritation in your life.


*study carried out by charity Relate
Words: Lizzie Pook, Zoë Beaty, Kate Wills, Catherine Gray
Photography: Getty Images

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