• Luli Faber

How a break-up affects the body

The PHYSICAL pain of breaking up: From chest pain to drug-like withdrawal symptoms, we reveal the real effects of heartache

  • Emotional pain activates the same pathways in the brain as physical pain, so rejection really does hurt and people often feel a pain in their chest

  • Studies show withdrawal symptoms for an ex are like cravings for cocaine

  • During a break up, stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released

  • These have damaging affects on the body, from the skin to the muscles

  • The lovesick also may switch healthy behaviours for more unhealthy ones

You feel miserable, you don't eat and you can't sleep.

But a break up also affects the body in other ways.

Doctors agree the stress hormones released after a split wreak havoc on the body and damage health.

From bad skin and weight gain to digestive problems and heart attacks, we reveal how a break up affects the body...

From bad skin to weight gain and heart attacks , we reveal how a break up affects the body...


They say love is a drug, and it turns out people do suffer withdrawal symptoms from their partner after splitting up, similar to the cravings drug addicts experience for cocaine.

The anguish experienced during a split activates the same part of the brain that is stimulated during addiction, according a Stony Brook University.

Analysing brain scans of the broken-hearted, they found similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving.


After a break up, people are at risk of suffering depression and anxiety, conditions which can bring on insomnia, and are also in turn made worse by a lack of sleep.

Psychologist Dr Susan Quilliam says the anguish of a break up brings back deep-seated memories about being abandoned as a child that everyone holds – even without knowing it.

She told MailOnline: ‘Human babies cannot survive on their own. They might die of lack of warmth or food.

‘A human is programmed to need human contact, and to be affected when human contact is withdrawn.

‘We are programmed to suffer when we are abandoned, so we don’t lose our mothers, so we are cared for.’

‘But at some point everyone in childhood thinks "oh my god I’m alone I’m going to die".

‘So a break up revokes those emotions and makes us feel insecure, angry and sad.’

The anguish of a break up activates the same part of the brain that is stimulated during cocaine addiction, a Stony Brook University found. Pictures are scans of brains on cocaine (file photo)

People go through a similar bereavement process during a break up as when someone has died, she added.

‘They go through the bereavement cycle, typically shock, denial, grief, anger, blame, self-blame helplessness, fear of the future, depression and then acceptance,' she told MailOnline.

‘If people feel abandoned but don’t feel anger, they come depressed, they lose confidence in their ability to have a relationship in the future.

‘They become anxious, they may relive conversations and the break up in their minds. They may not sleep, which makes anxiety and depression worse.’

Remembering the reasons for the break-up, and trying to remember why it is a good idea can help prevent sinking into depression, she said.

‘Particularly if a break up is wise, and you know it happened for a reason, you can come out a lot wiser. It can leave people stronger.

‘It can be the kick up the bum that leads you to learn how to love.’

And remembering an old Japanese saying is particularly helpful, she said.

‘They say the Japanese Kitsuki bowl is the most beautiful bowl. But if it is broken and melded with gold it is even more beautiful.'

Just as a person can be more beautiful if they have suffered a break up and have had to put themselves back together again, she added.


Intense emotional pain can activate the same networks of nerves as physical pain, according to Colombia University psychologists.

So being rejected or grieving over a lost love can actually really hurt, and feel a bit like being punched.

Researcher Edward Smith took MRI scans of participants’ brains and then asked them to look at pictures of old flames.

He found an overlap between the pathways for emotional and physical pain.

Rejection stimulated the same nerve signals that cause pain when a person spills tea on themselves or stubs their toe, he said.


After a break up or a divorce, the body is flooded with stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

This leads to the heart beating faster and triggers abnormal heart rhythms.

Dr Graham Jackson, a retired cardiologist and now chairman of the Sexual Advice Association said he often saw people dying of a heart attack within the first fortnight after a break up.

He told MailOnline: ‘It seems to happen the next day after the break up – up to one to two weeks.‘

‘People start worrying, the adrenaline levels go up, the body goes into "fight or flight mode" and the stress can cause sudden heart attack and death.

‘They go pale, the heart starts beating too fast. When it does that, you have a narrowing in the arteries which is not normally significant, but it comes significant, when stressed.

‘Even if you don’t have a heart attack this can cause irregular heartbeat and rapid heart beat.

‘People who have this kind of stress, it’s like putting your heart on cocaine. Stress can even bring on the symptoms of a heart attack even if the arteries aren’t blocked.'

Women tend to die suddenly in the short term after a break up, but more men die of heart attacks in the long run.

Dr Jackson said men whose lives leave them tend to fare badly, he said.

‘They don’t look after themselves, they don’t eat well, they don’t exercise, they don’t go to the doctor. So they die,’ he explained.


The stress hormones released after a break up can aggravate the skin.

Dr Daron Seukerman, a consultant dermatologist at SK:N clinic, Harley street, London, told MailOnline: ‘A break up is naturally one of the biggest things that can happen in a person’s life, comparable to bereavement.

‘A cocktail of stress hormones flood the body and can damage health in all sorts of ways.

‘Every dermatologist is aware that where a patient is going through a break up certain conditions can deteriorate.’

He said a mixture of studies and anecdotal evidence shows stress and depression is linked with a deterioration of psoriasis, eczema, alopecia and even acne.

Not only do stress hormones trigger changes in skin, people might become distracted after a break up and let their treatment regime slide.

‘One of the things that can happen is patients might have a daily regiment of treatment for their skin problem- moisturisers and so on,’ he said.

‘But because they’re stressed and it’s not their priority, they let it slide and skin gets worse.’

However, he did have some good news for those prone to comfort eat after the loss of romance.

‘There’s no evidence eating more chocolate would give you more acne,’ he said.


People who have gone through a divorce are 23 per cent more likely to suffer from mobility issues such as difficulty climbing stairs or walking short distances, according to a University of Texas study.

Sammy Margo, a chartered physiotherapist said people come in with a painful area of the body, and it turns out that they haven’t been in an accident, but have experienced their relationship break down.

She told MailOnline: ‘We don’t treat people for overdoing it or lifting heavy weights. We now treat people for sitting at desks for long hours, and stress.

‘If I talk to someone with a neck problem, usually they haven’t done anything mechanical to set the problem off.

‘But it comes up in conversation that they’ve had a break up or a divorce. The stress causes muscle spasms and tightness.

‘If this happens over the part of a body that is already weak, muscles shorten, tighten and this causes pain.

‘And it’s no less of a pain, you’d get a similar tightness in the shoulder from whiplash as from break up pain.’

People who are stressed are also more vulnerable to injury.

‘You’re more likely to crash your car or trip up,’ she added.


People are often too lovesick to eat in the first few weeks after a break up.

This is because when stressed, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus produces a hormone which suppresses appetite, according to Harvard Medical School scientists.

The brain also sends messages to adrenal glands on the kidneys to pump out adrenaline, which triggers the body’s fight or flight response, which puts eating on hold.

But in the long term, Yale scientists discovered stress causes weight gain, especially around the middle.

It makes the cells less sensitive to the hormone insulin, and so the body produces more insulin in response.

Emotional tears are more watery and less salty than 'everyday' basal tears causing eyes to look puffy

But insulin turns sugar into fat, increasing the rate at which fat is stored in the body and leading to weight gain.

It also causes the body to crave sugar and fat, which leads to mindless eating.

Stressed people also lose sleep, do less exercise, and drink more alcohol, all of which can lead to them piling on the pounds.

Stress also diverts blood away from the digestive system, which can lead to stomach pain, diarrhoea and constipation.


Scientists have discovered that we shed different 'types' of tears.

Basal tears are released to keep the eyes moist, and reflex tears are released in response to irritants, such as when a person chops onions.

Tears associated with emotional crying are called 'psychic' tears and are produced by the lachrymal gland, located in the upper corner of the eyelids.

They are more watery and less salty than 'basal' and 'reflex' tears.

Emotional tears overflow, spill down the cheeks (often leaving trails of mascara) and drain through tiny ducts in the back of the nose.

So because of the process of osmosis, the water moves into the saltier tissues of the eyes, which makes them swell up and look puffy.

Lots of rubbing with tissues can also make them red and sore.

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