What Happens to Your Body During a Breakup—and 3 Ways to Feel Better ASAPJuly 8th, 2016
It’s a visceral feeling. That gut-punching, head-slamming, heart-wrenching sort of ache that can last for weeks, and even return suddenly, months later, as you walk past your ex’s favorite date-night spot. Whether it’s a mutual agreement to consciously uncouple or a messy split, ending a relationship can be really traumatic.
Even the most level-headed people can lose their cool when heartbreak strikes. There’s no denying that ending a relationship affects our mental health—and it can have some strange physical side effects, too. Whether you’re going through it right now (it gets better, we promise!) or still reeling from a past breakup, here are some practical suggestions to help heal your heart and body a little more quickly, depending on how you’re feeling.
If you’re in pain…
That discomfort you’re experiencing, which can feel like anything from a sharp pain to incessant pressure around your stomach and heart? It’s totally real. A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that when freshly single people were shown pictures of their exes, the area of the brain that registers physical pain lit up. The discomfort of heartache is palpable enough that popping a Tylenol may actually help ease the symptoms; in a 2013 study performed at the University of Kentucky, participants said that taking acetaminophen for three weeks helped them get over social rejection, and brain scans showed a positive change in neurological response as well. As much as you may be hurting—even physically—know that it’ll pass. “You have to remember it won’t always feel like this,” says relationship coach Daniella Rosales-Friedman.
Try: Setting aside time for self-care
We don’t recommend popping pills until your feelings go away (Tylenol is actually a pretty dangerous over-the-counter drug), but you can self-medicate in a more positive way. “The beginning is the most intense part of the breakup,” according to Rosales-Friedman. “In one way, it’s when you feel most alive, but you’re also ultra-sensitive to everything that’s happening around you. Self-care is an absolute must—it’s not something to skimp on.” Take the time to be gentle with yourself in the days and weeks after a relationship ends, and treat it like a physical injury. Try to get more sleep and spend more time on rituals like dry brushing, foam rolling, or journaling.
Rosales-Friedman says that treating yourself well can clear your thoughts and get you back in touch with your intuition. Perhaps it will even help you figure out what you really want out of life and, eventually, what you’re looking for in a partner. It’s a time to, as she puts it, “Plug in to your heart’s desire.”
If you’re addicted…
Following a breakup, it’s not abnormal to experience what is essentially an “addiction” to your ex—or, at least, an addiction to how they make you feel. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released during pretty much any behavior that makes you feel good, flooding the brain’s pleasure center and triggering feelings of happiness. Research has proven that falling in love activates the same parts of the brain as doing an addictive drug like cocaine. And what about when we break up? Viewing the brain scans of people who’ve just been dumped offered some insight for anthropologist Helen Fisher. She found that showing a subject a photo of their ex was enough to activate the orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortex, the two parts that shimmer on an MRI when an addict craves drugs. In a nutshell, your brain almost becomes more addicted to your former lover once you part ways. This explains why it seems like every little thought revolves around your old flame in the weeks following a split—and why it can feel so impossible to get over someone.
Try: Distancing yourself completely
Avoiding the person who broke your heart for a little while is key if you’re really want to get over them. “You need some distance,” says Rosales-Friedman. That goes for in-person coffee meetings and all digital correspondence. Resist the urge to check social media, and don’t send that text. Finding that’s easier said than done? Try this soothing meditation from Jennifer Partridge to help you break addictive patterns and find inner peace.
If you’re stressed…
Bags under your eyes, lack of appetite, and skin flare-ups are all products of the stress—and excess cortisol—coursing through your veins. Usually cortisol is a good thing, as it causes the fight-or-flight response to kick in. But when you’re super stressed for a long period of time, the body can release too much, and the excess can bring on fat gain, loss of muscle mass, digestive issues, fatigue, and even infertility.
And the breakout you’re dealing with on top of it all? Probably linked to stress, too. One Wake Forest University study found that students were 23 percent more likely to break out around the time of an important exam. Researchers hypothesized that inflammation, brought on by stress and anxiety, was the culprit.
Try: Moving more and eating better
It feels kinda good to wallow in your sorrows in the days after a split, avoiding showers at all costs and eating melty ice cream out of the carton for every meal. But don’t make a habit of it. “Eat and drink whatever you want to make yourself feel better for a week—then refocus yourself,” Rosales-Friedman says. “It’s important to feel great, and strong.” She recommends her clients try yoga or other workouts to get their minds off the breakup and boost their self-confidence. And because getting active can also lower stress hormones in the body, a few endorphins might be just what you need to start feeling like yourself again.
Try eating an anti-inflammatory diet, too. It’ll help clear up your complexion, for one, and also could help improve your mood. Not sure where to start? Check out our five-day detox for a simple yet effective anti-inflammatory menu full of delicious, fresh meals.
Breakups suck, as a rule. But sometimes, the end of a relationship can be a turning point that leads you to bigger, better things. Even if the wound is still fresh, keep in mind that you’re going to be OK. Rosales-Friedman says that this is the time where we grow and develop the most: “Be aware of your own strength! And respect, honor, and love yourself.”
Illustration by Karley Koenig