Break-ups: the physiological impact of heartbreak on the body

Posted by for Wellbeing

The stress of a breakup can have a massive emotional and physical impact. Here’s what happens to our bodies when we suffer a broken heart, and what we can do to pick ourselves back up. 

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but heartbreak is the worst. The aftermath of a particularly difficult breakup can take its toll on us both mentally and physically. As well as feeling a whole host of upsetting emotions, make us stressed, drained, hyper alert, and even cause us pain. 

If you have ever thought that some of those symptoms were all in your head, you’d be wrong. While the extreme ups and downs of heartache can sometimes make us feel like we’re overreacting, there are actually very real, physiological processes that happen when we go through a breakup.

According to Cate Mackenzie, a Psychosexual Therapist and Couples Counsellor from the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists, our hormonal and emotional responses to a breakup can place significant stress on the body. Especially if we have put down deep roots in an important relationship, it can be difficult to let go, and the loss we experience can be devastating. This understandably causes some intense physiological responses. 

Mackenzie tells Stylist that, when we suffer a broken heart, our body goes into survival mode as a way of coping with the sudden loss. As a result, our levels of the stress hormone cortisol go up and we start to use up all the glucose stored in our bodies. It is a stress response, and one that “does not allow much room for being able to think clearly and manage our lives”.

In some cases, a person may even go into a state of shock, “which has a very physical effect on our bodies”, says Mackenzie. Shock can cause us to either be “hyperaroused, adrenalised and unable to switch off”, or it can cause the complete opposite reaction, in which we may become “hypo-aroused and dissociated”. Both can be distressing.

It is common to struggle with taking your mind off a loss you have experienced. When we build a relationship with someone, we form an attachment to them. Losing that can make us lose our sense of security, upset the balance of our lives, and alter how we see the future. This can quite easily cause us to “get stuck, do nothing, and re-traumatise ourselves by going over and over the loss in our minds”. 

A woman who is stressed
Breakups can cause us to “get stuck, do nothing, and re-traumatise ourselves by going over and over the loss in our minds”.

But dwelling in this way can be damaging. As Mackenzie explains, “a thought will lead to an emotion which creates an effect in the body” which, evidently, can be pretty severe. In fact, there is even such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Known also as stress cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome is a condition “in which intense emotional or physical stress can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness”, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. While the weeks and months following a painful breakup can seem endless, there are ways you can build yourself back up and lessen the impact on your heart, mind and body. Mackenzie says that it’s important to pick yourself up and, as much as possible, keep yourself going. “If you meet new people and experience new situations, you can rebuild your dopamine levels”, which will help to keep you feeling motivated and positive. 

At the end of the day, we all know how terrible break ups can be, and the extent to which our bodies react to them may not come as too much of a surprise, given how we feel when we’re in their midst. But, as Mackenzie quite rightly says, “if a person can find ways to have fun, meet new people and have new experiences, they can support themselves through that grieving process”. 

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