The science of a break-up: What happens to our bodies?
The end of your romantic relationship can make a real dent in your physical health. But with the right coping strategies, it can also lead to positive change.
Before his break-up, Mark*, now 35, was a healthy Sydneysider. He played hockey weekly and trained regularly. He ate well and his type 1 diabetes was under control.
But when Mark’s relationship ended suddenly after five years, he lost almost 15kg, struggled to sleep and stopped managing his diabetes effectively.
"I was frequently fatigued and would forget to eat,” he says. “And when I did, it was often junk food or whatever I could access at the time. I think the initial shock of separation was so traumatic that it affected my daily routines. As I adjusted to life alone, my self-care fell away and that led to the gradual deterioration of my health."
Although Mark’s since moved on emotionally and romantically, he still feels the physical repercussions of that bleak period: "I shrugged off an injury that got worse and worse and has left my shoulder compromised even after months of rehab," he says.
The science of heartbreak
Is there any science to 'broken heart syndrome'? In 2010, a study led by Rutgers University in the US scanned the brains of men and women who had been recently rejected by a romantic partner.
When participants discussed or were shown pictures of their former lovers, the regions of the brain associated with physical pain were triggered, as well as areas of the brain associated with addiction.
Perth-based cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp, author of Can You Die of a Broken Heart? A heart surgeon's insight into what makes us tick (Murdoch Books), says there are two main factors contributing to heartbreak’s effect on the body.
The first factor is physical, as we may feel high levels of stress: "During times of emotional upheaval our brains set off a cascade of physical responses that can impact on our physical health," she says. "We see changes in our heart rate and blood pressure, we release more stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, our blood gets a bit stickier, our immune system can be a bit vulnerable and our sleep can be disturbed."
The second factor is behavioural: "I’m sure people can relate to the behavioural changes that happen. We might be less likely to stick to a healthy routine, or even socially isolate ourselves, which compounds the physical changes."
And if you’re wondering whether the emotional pain of your recent split could actually kill you, the answer (thankfully) is most likely not. "Although it feels like you’re going to die of heartbreak, chances are, you’ll be fine," she says.
Getting over a break-up
You only need to consult pop music to know a relationship split can feel all-consuming, but psychologist Gemma Cribb, author of Doing Single Well: A Guide to Living, Loving and Dating Without Compromise (Trigger Publishing), says wallowing isn’t helpful. She recommends:
- keeping busy and distracted
- treating yourself kindly – as if you were a little unwell
- checking in regularly with your thoughts about the break-up. "For example, do 30 minutes of journaling, but try not to think about the break-up all day, every day," she advises
- connecting with your network and surrounding yourself with friends and family. "Find a supportive friend to call instead of your ex if you feel the impulse to contact them."
Although it’s far from a pleasant experience, the end of a relationship can have positive effects on your wellbeing.
"Coming out of a relationship gives you a great opportunity to check in with yourself, work out what habits and activities suit you, and what perhaps you were doing in the spirit of supporting your partner [not yourself]," Gemma says.
"It can help you reassess your lifestyle, and many people decide to live healthier. It’s a normal impulse to want to look better if you feel rejected romantically, so it’s common for many people to start a new exercise and diet regimen."
*Name has been changed
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Words by Trudie McConnochie
First published July 2020 edition of Health Agenda magazine
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