Content and Editorial Director
We all know how truly dreadful we feel when a relationship ends, or we experience some other deep personal loss. But that feeling is just emotional, and doesn’t affect us physically, right? Not necessarily. Science shows that heartbreak can have some seriously negative effects on our physical health. The good news? They can be reversed.
In 2010, scientists conducted a study that examined the brains of heartbroken people. They had participants look at photos of their loved one while talking about the person who rejected them. As they reacted, often crying, shaking and getting angry, their brains were viewed using an fMRI scan. This device measures differences in blood flow in the activated areas of the brain, which appear as vibrant blooms of blue, green, red and yellow. It was immediately apparent that the participants’ emotions triggered activity in the same brain areas associated with physical pain. So when you say you’re “hurt” as a result of being rejected by someone close to you, you’re not just using a metaphor. It really does hurt, sometimes devastatingly so.
The physical manifestations of heartbreak include loss of appetite, digestive and skin issues and insomnia. These symptoms are common following a breakup, and may speak to one of our most primitive bodily systems: the fight-or-flight response. In response to a threat, lightning-fast hormonal changes activate the sympathetic nervous system. Physiological changes like increased blood flow to the muscles (which can cause trembling), increased heartbeat and respiration rate (flooding the body with oxygen) and pupil dilation (letting in more light to see our surroundings better) equip us to fight the threat or flee to safety. But the flood of hormones can wreak havoc on us physically.
Science journalist Florence Williams knows this all too well. When her husband left her after more than 25 years, she says that, physically, she “felt like her body had been plugged into a faulty electrical socket.” She lost 20 pounds, stopped sleeping and actually developed Type 1 diabetes, something that almost always presents at a much younger age. As a journalist, she decided to investigate what she was going through, and revealed her findings in her new book Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey. And some of them are truly startling.
There's a heart disease that seems to be caused by heartbreak and other emotional trauma called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and it can actually change the shape of your heart. “Takotsubo” is a Japanese word that means “octopus pot,” and it shows up in people's hearts as a strange, bulbous, distended shape. Takotsubo rates increase after big emotional blows, like a partner leaving or spouse dying. There are even some examples of men developing takotsubo after their sports teams are defeated if they're very invested. So we now know that there's a clear emotional link between what's happened in your life and what's happening in your heart.
Heartbreak can also affect us on a cellular level. UCLA neurogeneticist Steven Cole is a specialist in how our immune systems react to our social state. He set out to discover why it is that lonely people seem to die earlier and suffer from more chronic diseases than those who feel they have social support. In lonely people, he found changes in a set of genes that prepare their immune systems to respond to certain kinds of threats and not to respond to others. Basically, when we feel alone and abandoned, our bodies are gearing up for some kind of threat, like a predator or an injury. SAnd so our bodies respond to that by producing more inflammation and immune cells that produce inflammation. This makes evolutionary sense because when we're alone and unprotected we’re more likely — for example — to get a flesh wound where we'll need the inflammation.
Fascinated by these findings, Williams decided to have her blood tested by Cole about five months after her split from her husband. Cole reported that, yes, she did have a lot of inflammation showing up in her immune cells. However, more than six months later, she had another blood test, and the inflammation was greatly reduced.
And that’s the good news. When people suffer from a broken heart, they can get better. Even most people who develop an “octopus pot” heart fully recover. And there are things you can do to speed your recovery. According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, the best way to deal with the object of your affection after the breakup is to treat them like something you’re addicted to — and if possible, go cold turkey. Don’t text, don’t call, don’t show up where this person is likely to be and (does it even need mentioning?) don’t track them on social media. Go out with old friends so you feel connected — this emotional reinforcement drives up the oxytocin system and can calm you down. Even if it’s the last thing you want to do, get lots of physical exercise. That drives up the dopamine system that gives you energy and optimism and focus and motivation. It also ups the endorphins so that some of the pain goes away. And as obvious as it seems, give it time. The more time that elapses after a loss, the more distance you’ll have from the traumatic event, and the less it will sting. Really.
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