Let’s face it — breaking up sucks. Not only did your relationship end, but you also feel like a crazy person. Some days, it’s hard to get out of bed. Others, you have to physically force yourself to put down the phone so you won’t call your ex. While it’s undeniably hard to break up, it might make you feel better that some of your post-break up “craziness” is just your body’s natural response to your break up. Here’s what the experts say is really going on.
You experience physical pain
If you feel like you’re in actual pain after a break up, it isn’t just you. Dr. Cwanza A. Pinckney, a board certified emergency physician, told me, “After a traumatic emotional event like a break up, your body truly does experience physical pain. Medical research shows that the same pain receptors that are triggered when you break a leg light up just the same after a painful break up. Pain medications have even be used to calm these receptors and blunt the pain response.”
Jenev Caddell, psychologist, author, and couples therapist agreed. “‘Sticks and stones break my bones but names will never hurt me’ may be a rhyme you heard as a kid, but it’s completely false,” she said. “Research in the past few decades [has] shown us that social and emotional pain DO hurt us; in fact, this kind of pain is registered in the same part of your brain as physical pain. Break ups can therefore be extremely difficult for us to endure, and do have physical effects.”
Licensed Psychologist Marni Amsellem added, “Often when we are feeling stress or emotional hurt, it can manifest in increased sensitivity to physical pain. On the one hand, we have a heightened sensitivity to feeling [negative things] when we are in a negative emotional state, and on the other hand, when stressed, our muscles tense and blood vessels constrict. Our sympathetic nervous system is relied on when we are feeling acute stress.”
You go through withdrawal
If you’ve ever told a friend, “I am going through withdrawal from my ex!” it turns out you actually are. Just like you can experience withdrawal if you quit smoking, you can experience similar symptoms after a break up.
Dr. Pinckney told me, “A break up with an intimate partner can truly elicit withdrawal symptoms that mimic withdrawal off of drugs. Love relationships cause the brain to secrete pleasure producing hormones that feed our internal pleasure and reward system much like heroin or cocaine. The rapid withdrawal of an intimate partner can cause your body to crave your former partner much like drug addicts crave their drug of choice.”
Maybe that’s why you’re eating so much more ice cream than usual — it’s the equivalent of a break up nicotine patch!
You gain or lose weight
When I broke up with my ex after college, I lost ten pounds without even trying. If you find yourself gaining or losing weight, you’re definitely not alone.
Dr. Pinckney explained, “Weight loss and gain is very common after a break up. If you are gaining weight most likely it is the little stress monster in your brain known as cortisol that when over stressed will convince you that you need to devour an entire pizza or chocolate cake because you have to have it.”
If you’re more like me and tend to lose weight, she explained it this way. “On the reverse side your body is being flooded with adrenaline which essentially overstimulates your cortisol levels but in a great many people the flooding of adrenaline will suppress the appetite and cause weight loss by metabolic stimulation and appetite suppression.”
You get stressed out
Break ups are incredibly stressful, and that stress can lead to additional problems, as well. Caddell told me, “Stress hormones like cortisol are released, which over time can lead to decreased immune functioning and a lot of other health problems. Your body is essentially weaker after a break up.”
Dr. Lynn Anderson, yoga therapist and natural health expert, added, “In survival mode cortisol can be lifesaving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating body functions that aren’t so important when stressed such as reproductive drive, immunity, digestion, and growth. When we are going through a break up we tend to dwell on the issues and this constant producing of cortisol suppresses the immune system, increases blood pressure and blood sugar, and may contribute to obesity. Over the long run this can create severe health issues.”
But don’t let that stress you out further — instead, be even more intentional about taking care of yourself. If you feel like going for a massage, go ahead and splurge. It’s better that you deal with your stress now than let it get out of control.
Your hormones get out of whack
Cortisol isn’t the only hormone in your body that’s acting up, either. Dr. Anderson explained, “Adrenaline and norepinephrine are two hormones that the body produces in the face of stress. Both hormones push the response button by raising your heart rate, tensing your muscles, producing quick short breaths and making you sweat.”
She added, “They shift blood and oxygen away from areas that might not be so crucial, like your skin, immune system and vital organs. Often loss of appetite, skin breakouts, headaches, and illness due to ineffective immune responses are the results. What you feel is a rush of tense energy surging through your system, a shortness of breath, foggy thoughts, and a pounding heart.”
If you feel tense or overstressed, take a deep breath, meditate, or do something calming for yourself. You may not be with your ex anymore, but you can still give yourself the love and attention you deserve. Dr. Pinckney told me, “Meditation and breathing [have] been scientifically proven to decrease stress hormones, promote a sense of well being, and help you reconnect to the power within yourself as you go through this time of transition.”
You have brain activity that leads to obsessing over your ex
Have you ever obsessed over your ex without knowing how to stop? I know I have. I was relieved to find out that this is actually a completely normal response to breaking up.
Caddell told me, “Helen Fisher has done a great deal of brain research on love and break ups. She and her team have found that among people in love, there is increased activity in the region of the brain that produces the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is highly related with the brain/body’s reward system, focus, and intense interest.” She went on, “After a break up, this area of your brain also gets activated, so you may be likely to obsess about the person, without any rewards. Anyone who has been in this situation understands how difficult it can be to get out of because you would like to forget the person and move on, but unfortunately, you can’t stop thinking about them.”
The next time your best friend tells you to “Just get over it,” point her to this article and explain that it isn’t you being obsessive — it’s just your brain reacting normally.
You have brain activity that leads to endless pro and con lists
Another completely normal (yet very frustrating) thought pattern is making constant mental pro and con lists about your ex. Caddell explained, “Another part of your brain, related to your reward system, that also gets activated after a break up is responsible for calculating all kinds of gains and losses, rewards, and making meaning out of the situation, according to Dr. Fisher’s research (this is called the nucleus accumbens). This has to do with why you are questioning and thinking and weighing all kinds of pros and cons and revisiting history a thousand times in your head.”
It can be very painful to constantly revisit the past and ask yourself “What if?” The bottom line is you broke up with your ex for a reason, so try to trust yourself. When rehashing the past gets to be too much, just chalk it up to your nucleus accumbens and take a nice long bath.
You feel lethargic
Do you ever feel like you can’t through the day without multiple naps? After a break up, your body naturally feels more lethargic because it’s processing the emotional experience you just had.
Stephen Duclos, certified sex therapist, family therapist, mental health counselor, and rehabilitation counselor, told me, “When we break up with a close relational or sexual partner, we experience a sense of fatigue, as if we have just finished a kind of emotional marathon. This is our body’s way of moving backwards before it can move forward again.”
Let yourself indulge in a few extra naps, knowing that your fatigue is temporary and you’ll be back to your old energetic self soon.
You feel relieved
Let’s be honest — sometimes a break up brings a natural sense of relief with it, as well. Duclos told me that relief (and guilt about being relieved, are common. “Relationships are complicated. When we uncouple from a troubled relationship, we almost immediately have a sense of relief, which is accompanied by a sense of guilt for feeling relieved of the responsibilities of being in the relationship. Our relief feels irresponsible, with a tinge of shame.”
If you feel shame along with your relief, know that your relief is completely normal and understandable. Letting go of the emotional trauma of a failed relationship does bring a sense of relief, because now you have more energy to devote to other things.
How to feel better after a break up
While it’s not simple to start feeling better after a break up, there are things you can do to get through it. Caddell told me in our interview, “Surround yourself with social support, even if all you want to do is isolate. This social support from friends and family do not replace the relationship you had, but can definitely help you cope better and experience a decreased stress response as a result.”
In addition, she suggested, “Try something new. Even if you feel like holing yourself up in your room and obsessing about your ex, try to motivate yourself to try something new. Now is a great opportunity to take that dancing class you’ve always thought about but never done or traveled somewhere you’ve always wanted to go but never been. Consider it medicine.”
If your friends just can’t handle hearing you obsess about your ex anymore, Caddell recommended, “Find a therapist to talk these things through with and work them out with. With your therapist’s help, you can develop a narrative and understand meaning around what happened so that you can properly grieve the loss and move on with your life.”
This won’t last forever
The physical aftereffects of a break up are painful, but they won’t last forever. Soon, you’ll be back to your happy, energetic self. Your ex will just be a blip on the radar of your life. Until then, take care of yourself, be patient, and stock up on your favorite ice cream. This is a great time to indulge and enjoy the little things in life.