What physically happens when you have a broken heart?

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Broken heart

Ever wondered what happens to your mind and body when you go through a break-up? Take a look at the top 10 scientific symptoms of heartbreak to find out whether you’ve been struck by broken heart syndrome

We’ve all had that sucker punch feeling in the pit of your stomach during a break-up, but how does your body really react to heartbreak? It’s actually more severe than you might think, with an effect that’s similar to the kind of chemical withdrawal you might experience when you give up smoking. The average person can expect a range of physical and mental effects to strike for what feels like forever (or at least 26 days!)

Broken heart syndrome, as it’s often known, is a condition brought on by acute stress. It can actually mimic the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, thanks to the high levels of adrenaline circulating around the body. If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone; a survey we carried out here at eHarmony.co.uk showed that eight million UK adults have experience some form of heart break in the last 12 months, and 74% of them battling some kind of negative symptoms as a result.

Your mental health is normally the first thing to take a hit. A third of broken-hearted people go through periods of loneliness, depression and decreased levels of motivation after a break-up, while skin problems, headaches and general pain were common physical afflictions. And how do we cope? Focusing on work, exercising and spending time with friends and family were some of the more positive coping methods that our survey unearthed, with comfort food, TV binges and diving straight back into the arms of an ex were more questionable options – especially as 50% of people immediately regretted it!

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But why does this happen? We turned to eHarmony’s resident expert Dr. Linda Papadopoulos for answers. ‘When you’re in love, a hormone called dopamine floods your brain along the same pathway that nicotine does and makes you feel good. But as it drops away, you want more,’ she explains. ‘There’s a well-documented link with withdrawal symptoms and a loss of appetite and increase in headaches, insomnia and depression. A withdrawal craving for the partner that really hurt you is the same craving as you’d have for the cigarette that you know will cause you serious ham in the long run.’

So, what becomes of the broken hearted? Here are the top 10 symptoms you’ll likely experience – and why!

    1. Overall low mood
      It’s unlikely that you’d feel on top of the world during a break-up anyway, but the drop in dopamine and increase in adrenalin in your body produces an effect known as habituation, when you have to find new routines while still missing the old ones. If you’ve ever had to stop yourself sending that daily good night text then you know exactly what we mean.
    2. Depression
      In a similar way to low mood, depression strikes when your body starts to adapt to the drop in dopamine that comes with a broken heart. Stripped of the ‘reward’ you get when you see the person you love, it’s hard to get that same buzz from elsewhere, which is when the temptation to return to your ex starts to become an issue.
    3. Reduced motivation
      The combined effect of a low mood with the drop in self-worth that often comes with a break-up can make everything feel like more of an effort. So, if you feel like you can’t manage much more than a Game of Thrones box-set on the sofa after a break-up, then don’t beat yourself up!
    4. Anxiety and stress
      If you always feel on edge after a break-up then you can blame those two hormones again: dopamine and adrenaline. A drop in dopamine, combined with an increase in adrenaline, triggers that fight or flight response that’s associated with stress and anxiety.
    5. Loss of appetite
      If you’re struggling to get excited about any kind of food – even your favourite Thai takeaway – then you’re dealing with cortisol. Having high levels of this hormone in your blood stream can lead to a high blood sugar, while anxiety-producing adrenaline slows down some of the body’s internal processes, including digestion.
    6. Insomnia
      If you can’t stop your mind whirring long enough to get some sleep, then you can blame it on your break-up. Those spiralling, ruminating thoughts (the ones that prey on your mind when you think you might have made a wrong decision) combined with a spike in adrenalin in the body, make it virtually impossible to get a good night’s rest.
    7. Unhealthy eating
      Everyone knows that ice cream is one of the first things we reach for when we need to heal a broken heart, and now there’s a scientific reason behind all those unhealthy cravings. Stress eating is a common side effect of broken heart syndrome, and can lead to food becoming ‘fetishised’ so that it starts feeling more like a treat than fuel for the body.
    8. Lack of exercise
      When you’re feeling lethargic and you’re battling a low mood, it’s little wonder that you don’t feel like making it to the gym. It can be worth the extra effort though; exercise is thought to improve levels of endorphins and give you those feel good vibes that you need to get over your ex.
    9. Headaches
      All that emotional stress causes tension throughout the body, and we often feel the effects in our heads first. Be sure to keep hydrated, get plenty of fresh air, go for a walk or treat yourself to a massage to help release some of the tension.
    10. Skin Problems
      And, as if you weren’t feeling bad enough already, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin can also cause your skin to break out! Watch out for the effects of other symptoms too; lack of sleep and poor diet can also take their toll on your complexion.
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