When 23-year old Emmie Scott, a direct marketer in Richmond, Va., and her boyfriend/co-worker broke up and still had to endure seeing each other daily, Scott suffered a broken heart—literally. “The most uncomfortable symptom I experienced is the sensation that someone was sitting on my chest—a combination of both pain and pressure that’s left more than one of my friends commenting that my heart must actually be broken.”
Researchers now understand that romantic rejection triggers changes in our brains that affect our health. Edward Smith, a Columbia University psychologist, and a team of colleagues, found that intense emotional pain can activate the same neural pathways as physical pain. Seems being jilted can hurt in a primitive physical way as if you've been sucker-punched by a welterweight.
What’s more, that physical pain can manifest in surprising ways. Aside from chest pain, you may get hit with a kick-butt cold or flu, develop insomnia, or a range of gastro symptoms from loss of appetite to diarrhea. The precise health wallop you suffer may have to do with how your body manifests stress. Asthmatic? You could have an asthma attack. Suffer from a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis? Your skin will likely flare up. Have irritable bowel syndrome? Prepare to hit the restroom.
“While in college I found out my boyfriend (and high school sweetheart) was cheating on me. Although only 110 pounds, I dropped almost 15 and broke out with a case of shingles, which required a week of prednisone to calm,” says Christina Stoever Young, 40, producer of a historic haunted walking tour in Truckee, Calif.
Here, the top health complaints stemming from heartache:
Complaint: Heart pressure or pain, palpitations, abnormal heart rhythms
Why: When the stress response is triggered by a break up or divorce, the body sends out a massive flooding of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. “Any time your adrenaline levels are higher, you’re more vulnerable to faster heart rate, palpitations and certain arrithymias, or abnormal heart rhythms, as well as skipped beats, light headedness, feeling your chest pounding, and a fluttering feeling in your neck,” says Dr. John M. Kennedy, a Marina Del Ray cardiologist and co-author of “The 15 Minute Heart Cure: The Natural Way to Release Stress and Heal Your Heart in Just Minutes a Day.”
Women heart patients facing severe stress from marriage difficulties were found to have three times the risk of heart attack as women without such stress. Worse, there’s a syndrome that mimics heart attack called Takotsuba syndrome, or broken heart syndrome, in which an EKG, chest X-ray and blood work all indicate heart attack. But when a cardiologist goes inside the heart searching for the culprit blocked artery, the arteries are wide open. The stress response simulates heart attack symptoms. “Broken heart syndrome is an extreme form of what heartache can do to our bodies,” says Kennedy. While it can be lethal, the heart muscle usually recovers within six months.
What helps: Anything that relieves stress helps prevent these heart problems during relationship troubles: exercise, yoga, tai chi, meditation, relaxing through breathing or visualization, even short term anti-anxiety medication.
Complaint: Cold or flu
Why: These same stress hormones torch your immune system leaving you vulnerable to rogue bacteria and viruses. “Normally when you’re confronted with bacteria or virus, your body will mount a defense,” says Dr. Valerie Scott, a board certified family doctor in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Post break up, however, your immune system is weakened and those defenses aren’t unable to ward off illness.
What helps: Managing your stress improves your immune system. Exercise, eat well, take a multi-vitamin, especially the B complex vitamins, which boost immunity, rest enough and decompress with music, comedy or friends to counteract the flood of stress hormones.
Complaint: Gastro upset (stomach pain, loss of appetite, diarrhea,)
Why: The excess cortisol shooting into your system during your break up diverts blood away from your digestive track, leaving you with GI unpleasantness--that ‘can’t eat for weeks, sour stomach, run to the bathroom feeling’ you get when your relationship tanks.
What helps: Try over-the-counter meds for your queasy stomach. In one study researchers simulated rejection in the lab and found that aspirin alleviates the painful feelings triggered by being rebuffed. While it seems skeptical, it’s worth a try, as is curbing your desire to veg on the couch. Exercise prompts your brain to release uplifting endorphins that will settle your stomach. What’s more, misery loves company. “You want to surround yourself with family and friends and supportive people because it’s easy to get depressed,” says Kennedy, which may worsen symptoms. Camaraderie can stimulate a much-needed dose of missing oxytocin, a feel-contented hormone.
Why: Sleeping patterns, not unlike eating patterns, become skewed during relationship demise. Some people want to stay in bed all day — while others can’t seem to sleep at all. Science really doesn’t understand why it happens, but it’s likely due to racing thoughts, the ‘he-said, she-said’ reenactment of the break up plays out mentally while at rest. Plus, stress hormones, still at their peak, may wreck your circadian rhythms and internal clock.
What helps: Stay active enough so your body will reach the reparative deep levels of sleep it needs, but don’t push yourself to exhaustion, which backfires. Exercise, but avoid it after 9 pm, since it could cause insomnia. Skip caffeine after 3 in the afternoon for the same reason. Turn off TV, computer and cell phone at least an hour before bed and embrace a relaxing sleep routine: low lighting, candles, and a warm bath. “Once you calm that stress response, all of these medical things resolve and get better,” says Scott.
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