There’s a reason you feel drained and queasy after a breakup: Heartbreak takes a physical toll on your body.
Unfortunately, that’s often overlooked, said Ronald A. Alexander, a psychotherapist in California and Colorado and the author of Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, and Change.
“You’re not alone if you take to your bed and feel withdrawn from the world,” Alexander said. “A broken heart can leave one feeling as if they have lost their rudder to the ship of their self. Crying and sobbing is common, as well as feelings of melancholy, but there are physical symptoms, too.”
Dealing with a broken heart, at least in the initial stages, often wreaks havoc on your sleep schedule. Sleep disorders like insomnia are common for the recently single, Alexander said. The stress of a breakup can keep you on edge, interfering with the biological processes that normally help you fall asleep at the end of the day.
“When you’re suffering from a broken heart, it can be very difficult to quiet down your mind, shut it down and get some rest,” he said.
Anxiety and increased heart palpitations often go hand in hand with a broken heart as well, Alexander added.
“It’s important to know that the sadness and grief of a broken heart can kick up and flood the nervous system,” he said. “It’s very normal for this state of hypoarousal to trigger feelings of loss of control.”
And in some extreme cases, a breakup could lead to heart attack-like symptoms. Broken heart syndrome ― or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, as it was first described in Japanese medical literature in the 1990s ― is a temporary heart condition that looks and feels like a heart attack and is often brought on by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one or a breakup.
Harmony Reynolds, a cardiologist at New York University Langone Medical Center, told HuffPost that broken heart syndrome is diagnosed in approximately 1 to 2 percent of patients who come to the hospital with heart attack symptoms.
She explained that the symptoms, electrocardiogram changes and blood tests of people with broken heart syndrome are similar to those of typical heart attack patients, even though the heart arteries remain open. (In a typical heart attack, the arteries are blocked.)
“Patients with broken heart syndrome also have extensive abnormalities of the heart muscle function during the event,” Reynolds said. “The heart muscle malfunction recovers completely in survivors over weeks to months. Unfortunately, patients who have had broken heart syndrome continue to have increased risk of heart disease and stroke events.”
Reynolds recently led a 20-year study that showed the condition hits older women the hardest.
“At least 6,000 cases of the syndrome occur annually in the U.S., and up to 90 percent of patients are female, usually post-menopausal,” she told HuffPost.
How is broken heart syndrome treated? Jeanine Romanelli, a cardiologist at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, said that doctors have to rule out other potential causes, like heart disease, blood clots or blockages, before diagnosing and treating broken heart syndrome.
“We approach treatment in much the same way we approach treatment for heart failure, using blood thinners, ACE inhibitors and beta blockers,” she said. “And because 10 percent of patients who experience an episode of broken heart syndrome have a second episode, it’s important for us to monitor a patient’s progress using ultrasounds, too.”
What To Do If You Have Symptoms
Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than a big tub of Ben & Jerry’s to help you move on from your ex. Romanelli recommends thinking back on the activities that helped you de-stress in the past and doing more of them.
“Unhealthy coping techniques like drinking or eating more can put your heart at risk, so try turning to outlets that relieve or help combat stress,” she said “Meditation, deep breathing, yoga or even taking a break from social media to catch up with a friend or read a book can help.”
And though it may sound basic, simply reminding yourself to take deep breaths and note your surroundings can help when you feel like you’re losing control.
“Breathe, call a friend for support, get counseling or take a long walk,” Alexander said. “If you can, go walk by a body of water; when your heart is broken, simply watching water pass by you can lead you to unconsciously realize that everything changes and nothing stays the same. The heart breaks and you’ll feel sorrow, but try to remember: This, too, shall pass.”