Updated 02 January 2014

The science of heartbreak

You can blame it on your ex, but what’s really making your heart hurt – and your body ache – is coming from inside.

Since you broke up, your stomach has felt like a hollow pit of emptiness, but you still can’t work up an appetite; your heart feels as if it’s clamped in a vice and you haven’t slept a wink all week. We’ve all been there before and there’s no question about it: losing the love of your life is a miserable experience. But it’s time to stop romanticising the past and agonising over what you’ve lost on the outside, because the real pain is coming from inside your head.

The brain hates being dumped. The same area that’s active when you’re in physical pain also goes haywire when you suffer personal rejection, says psychiatrist Dr Marcelle Stastny – evidence, she says, that your head is the one telling your body that being dumped hurts and not the other way around. When you’re in love, certain areas of your grey matter are awash in dopamine and oxytocin, hormones that give you feelings of pleasure and contentment, says Stastny.

But when your love is lost, so to speak, your supply of these natural feelgood chemicals dries up, leaving you more vulnerable to stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Under normal circumstances, your brain churns out cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones in response to a threatening experience. In limited quantities and the right context – like when an overtaking car nearly takes your bumper off on the freeway – these hormones help you react quickly to dangerous situations. The problem is that the organs responsible for producing them can’t always tell the difference between a stimulus that’s life threatening and a stimulus that’s emotionally threatening. What’s more, emotional threats like heartbreak tend to last longer than the physical variety.

As a result, these hormones accumulate and can become harmful to your health. An overabundance of cortisol, for instance, tells your brain to send more blood to your muscles, causing them to tense up for swift action. But you’re not running anywhere or hitting anything.

As a result, you’re plagued with swollen muscles that can cause headaches, a stiff neck and that awful squeezing sensation in your chest. Cortisol also diverts blood away from your digestive tract, leaving you with some serious gastrointestinal unpleasantness. And to make matters even worse, an overabundance of stress hormones can suppress your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections – hence the all-too-common post relationship health meltdown.

The precise way your body will react to a break-up is similar to the way your body reacts to stress, says Stastny. So if you have a sensitive stomach, you could be prone to cramps, appetite loss or diarrhoea.

If you have asthma, you might reach for your pump more often as stress hormones send your bronchial tubes into overdrive. And if you happen to have an addictive personality, you may feel as shaky as a heroin junkie in rehab because the area of your brain that processes cravings and addictions is also activated by emotional loss, according to recent research by the US Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

How to deal with heartbreak

The good news: although you may feel emotionally trampled for a while still, you can do something to ease your physical pain – and we don’t mean late-night clubbing, pizza binges or other indulgences.

Instead, try de-stressing herbal remedies like kava-kava and a good B-vitamin complex or, better yet, teach yourself some relaxation techniques like deep breathing to calm your nervous system. You can also curb those wild stress hormones by dragging yourself to gym for some aerobic exercise, Stastny advises. Working out prompts your brain to release uplifting endorphins.

And take a friend with you: camaraderie can induce a much-needed boost in your dwindling oxytocin levels. “One thing you should avoid doing is locking yourself in your room and hiding from the world,” says Cape Town-based psychologist Mark Connelly. “Turning into a hermit will only make things worse.” He advises getting back into some of your favourite pastimes and activities, since doing anything enjoyable can help rev your brain’s dopamine system. If you can’t dissociate your old passions from time spent doing things with your ex, take it as an opportunity to try something new: take a drawing class or join a jogging group – you’ll never bump into that lazy slug there. As Connelly says: “Whatever clears the mind could actually cure the body.”

Wallowing is one way we work through what went wrong… If theories of evolutionary psychology hold true, drawn-out pity parties began as a defence mechanism that kept our female ancestors from exposing themselves to further hurt by jumping into the next Neanderthal’s cave too quickly. Since then, wallowing has also become a tool we use to keep love alive – in our minds, at least. Sifting through old photos makes you feel linked to your ex, even if you no longer see him. And gorging on sad, heartbreak-heavy movies and songs makes you feel understood and not so alone. “one benefit of self-pity is that when you wallow, you tend to go over (and over)what you’ve done well – and what you could have done differently,” says Cape Town-based psychologist Mark Connelly. “And that could prepare you to handle things better in your next relationship.”

Why we cry

The biology behind the "snot en trane": Crying is healthy. When we’re severely overwhelmed, we can’t help but weep, says neuropsychologist Dr Jodi de Luca. Our bodies use crying to defuse bottled-up stress that can wreak havoc on our immune systems.

Tears Attract Kindness

It’s likely that human tears evolved so we could send out a clear non-verbal message: I need attention! So, De Luca says, “They elicit a sympathetic response in others.”

It’s A Girl Thing

Young males and females cry roughly the same amount, but one biological reason grown women cry more than men: after puberty, women’s bodies contain much more of the hormone prolactin, which is a main ingredient of emotional tears. So, experts infer, women are able to form and shed tears at a much faster and more frequent rate.

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