First it’s only the heartache, but the pain soon spreads. Your chest grows tight, your head aches. Can you really become ill from a broken heart, or is it all psychosomatic?
Her chest and lower back were constantly sore, Louise (27) of Witbank says. “I’m now so tense anything gives me a fright.” Many of us know the feeling. You’ve broken up with someone recently and it feels as if your world’s falling apart.
A few YOU readers tell how their health suffered after a love disappointment.
Tracy* (61), Bellville: “We broke up six months ago. I was very tense, my hair fell out in clumps, I lost a lot of weight, developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), became depressed and generally very ill. I had to be treated by a doctor and a counsellor. I’m struggling to become human again.”
Tasneem* (53), Johannesburg: “Last month I broke up with my boyfriend of a year. I experienced panic attacks and insomnia and began eating a ridiculous amount.”
Bonang* (38), Vanderbijlpark: “I had terrible stomach ache, hair loss, weight loss and loss of appetite. I lay awake at night and was nauseous when I tried to eat.”
Elana (22), Cape Town: “My boyfriend and I broke up after two-and-a-half years together. I felt physically ill, trembled constantly and cried for days on end. I became nauseous as soon as I tried to eat.”
Magenta (19), Theunissen: “When my fiancé left me for another woman, I lost the twins I was expecting. I didn’t know I was pregnant, but now every baby reminds me of my ex. I can’t sleep and have had stomach ulcers more than four times.”Carina (27), Roodepoort: “My ex left me in December for another woman five weeks before our wedding. I was nauseous every morning and had terrible heartburn. I had no appetite, but the worst was I had diarrhoea for almost two weeks. I also got pimples in the weirdest places.”
Experts say these complaints are anything but imagined. The stress hormones secreted by the body during a traumatic experience, such as the ending of a relationship, can have a highly detrimental effect on your body.
What the experts say:
Physical symptoms can occur as the end of a relationship is a traumatic experience and can cause extreme stress, explains Dr Ingrid Artus, a counselling psychologist of Roodepoort.
She says research findings show in the wake of trauma such as the end of a relationship negative emotions are often stored in your bodily or somatic memory before they lodge in your verbal memory. Only once you’ve processed the trauma are you able to shake off the negative emotions and physical symptoms.
It follows, Dr Artus says, that the best treatment for people who become ill after a break-up is approaching the problem from a medical and psychological perspective.
Pretoria counsellor Therese du Plooy confirms your thinking and the things you brood about for a long time will later affect your body. “The more we think about a particular event or person, especially where there are strong emotions involved, the more we reinforce those memories. Our thoughts trigger a direct physical reaction in the body, with various hormones being released.”
In her experience as a social worker, “people who suppress emotions instead of processing them are more inclined to develop physical symptoms”.
Sleep High cortisol levels after a break-up can keep you awake at night, and lack of sleep can in turn increase your stress levels. The thoughts that go through your mind, and the fact you have to adjust to no longer sleeping beside a partner, can also keep you awake.
Stress, anxiety and depression When you break up with a partner your body registers similar trauma to when someone close to you dies. You experience shock, denial, grief, anger, guilt feelings, hopelessness and fear. The general symptoms of anxiety include muscle spasms, headaches, nausea, sweating and impaired judgment. If you had a pre-existing anxiety problem, a break-up could make it worse. Research conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, America, also shows the break-up of a romantic relationship is more likely to result in full-scale depression than the death of a loved one.
Weight loss and gain, loss of appetite and emotional bingeing Many people struggle to eat normally again after a break-up. Stress triggers the release of a lot of adrenaline and cortisol, which suppresses the appetite and causes people to lose weight initially. In the long term, increased stress levels can lead to weight gain, especially around your middle. Of course stress can also cause people to binge because it increases their craving for junk food which contains a lot of fat, sugar and salt. Weight gain further increases your cortisol and blood-sugar levels and can lead to loss of muscle mass, high blood pressure and loss of calcium in your bones.
Identity crisis We don’t refer to our partner as our “other half” for nothing. Recent studies at Northwestern University in Illinois, US, found when a relationship ends the former partners both struggle to understand their place in the world again. Because so much free time and energy are invested in a relationship, and partners often share friends and interests, your image of yourself is to an extent formed by your partner and your identity is dependent on them.
Weakened immunity When the body experiences stress, cortisol levels – which cause the fight-or-flight reflex to kick in – rise. Research has shown if cortisol remains in the blood for long periods it can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to disease.
Stomach complaints Acute stress can badly upset your stomach and if it persists can lead to problems such as heartburn, poor digestion and irritable bowel syndrome. Stress diverts blood flow from the digestive system, which can lead to stomach pain, diarrhoea or constipation.
How to move on
Here’s practical advice from Cape Town motivational speaker and life coach Godfrey Madanhire:
- Remove or block your ex’s number on your cellphone, otherwise you’ll constantly be tempted to contact them.
- Remove all conversations with and photos of them from your cellphone to avoid being constantly reminded of the good times you had together.
- Avoid contact with your ex’s friends.
- Avoid places that were special to you or which you visited regularly, such as your favourite restaurant.Don’t constantly look them up on social media – even if you use a false profile.
- Don’t talk about your broken heart on social media. Avoid the topic altogether.
- Don’t listen to their favourite songs or artists or watch their favourite TV programmes or movies.
- Don't listen to emotional music such as Adele’s Someone Like You, Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River or Sam Smith’s Stay With Me. It will only upset you more.
- Focus all your energy on other positive things such as your career.
- Go to the gym. Exercise, get fit, keep healthy, shed any excess weight and appreciate yourself more. Doing so will boost your self-confidence and self-esteem and that will convince you that you deserve better.
- Don’t replace your ex too quickly. It will only lead to more frustration and you’ll never really process the pain.
- Read inspiring material and avoid romantic books like the plague. It’s definitely not the time to give Fifty Shades Of Grey a whirl.
* Not their real names