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How a breakup can affect your mind and body

Reading time: 6 minutes

Whoever coined the phrase ‘burned in love’ knew well of which they spoke. Because the brain registers rejection in the same region that it triggers bodily pain, the early stage of a breakup is often accompanied by an increase in body temperature that can make your skin feel as if it’s on fire, with disturbing body aches and pains, a frighteningly fast or abnormal heart rate, and a flood of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline that can cause sleeplessness, lack of appetite and hypervigilance, as well as send your immune system plunging.1

Contrary to our self-image of being fiercely independent and self-sufficient, the latest findings in neuroscience show that human beings are biologically and psychologically predisposed to attach in ways that make us strikingly reliant upon those we’re close to, and particularly helpless when it comes to regulating ourselves independent of one another.2 For this and other reasons, the ending of a relationship can be, for some, no less traumatic than the severing of a limb, and can send us into a physical and emotional tailspin of terrifying proportions. Dr Judith Herman of Harvard Medical School, author of Trauma and Recovery, acknowledges the “rupture of attachment” as one of our more serious shocks, putting it on par with the death of a family member. Studies show that when in the midst of a painful breakup, our brain patterns mimic those who are undergoing the death of a loved one.3

In a recent TED talk, Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, describes the unfortunate irony of what happens in our brains after being spurned by the one we love. The part of the brain that became activated when we first fell in love is the exact same part of the brain that becomes even more activated when we’re rejected by him or her. Rather than allow us to do the sensible thing and turn our attentions toward starting our new life, our brains are hardwired instead to actually increase our desire for the one we’re losing, keeping us torturously entangled in a frenzied and highly focused state of craving, want and longing.

Studies by Professor Semir Zeki of the Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London, who describes hate as “a passion that is of equal interest to love,” demonstrates how hate shares at least two brain circuits with romantic love, making us biologically predisposed to stay connected to a former partner through intense feelings of contempt and disgust, long after we’ve given back the keys to the apartment.4

Constant fighting, either in person or through the legal system, is one way that couples stay bonded, albeit a potentially expensive one. At a time when both people desperately need emotional healing, they instead do damage by weakening their immune systems further. In her book The Intention Experiment, bestselling author Lynne McTaggart cites a study carried out at Ohio State University College of Medicine demonstrating that physical wounds take
60 percent longer to heal in the aftermath of a hostile and contentious argument.5

Dr Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain and a professor at Pepperdine University, says that the brain has but one primary purpose: to ensure our survival. In the brain’s world, better to create a negative bond than experience the existential death of no bond at all.

So even if we know in our heart of hearts that letting go is the right thing to do, our brains will continue ruminating, strategizing and chewing endlessly on every little slight and injury, just to stay bonded to one who may no longer care to be bonded with us.

Given all of this, it’s easy to understand why so many of us behave badly at the end of love.

In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, author Daniel Goleman explains what happens when we’re hijacked by the reactive part of our brain during a life-threatening event, which the brain perceives a breakup to be. As alarm bells go off, urgent messages initiate the release of fight-or-flight hormones that mobilize movement before rational thought. With radically impaired judgment that can render us unable to gauge consequences clearly, we’re apt to act without conscience, or respond without regard to normal ethical considerations.

Consider Tania, who spends her days doing statistical research on high-profile psychological studies at a major university. In the aftermath of her husband’s affair that led him to leave her, she used her analytical mind to figure out the password to his email account and began obsessively cyber-stalking him, desperate to understand how this happened. In describing it, she says she lost any sense of an internal compass, and felt unable to manage her overwhelming emotions, which compelled her to spend hours each night at the computer reading and rereading his emails, past and present.

If you’re going through a bad breakup and have been left by the one you love, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed and out of control right now, flooded with big emotions that are driving you to act out, and perhaps compelling you to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, casual sex or binge shopping. Turn the page for my top three ways to deal with a bad breakup.

Label your feelings

One way to de-escalate these difficult emotions in a healthier way is through a surprisingly simple practice: labeling your feelings.

Social psychologist Dr Matthew Lieberman of UCLA spearheaded a study in which he and his colleagues scanned the brains of 30 people while they were shown pictures of faces expressing strong emotions, such as sorrow and despair. Initially, activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, panic and other intense emotions, increased dramatically. Yet, when people were able to connect a word with a facial expression, such as the word ‘anger’ to describe an angry face, brain activity decreased significantly.6

Dr Lieberman concludes that the ability to label our feelings “seems to dampen down the response in these basic emotional circuits of the brain. What lights up instead is the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls impulses.”

Apparently, the unassuming act of putting a label on each of your feelings, called ‘affect labeling’ by psychologists, lowers arousal and can put you back in the driver’s seat of your life.

Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Then one by one, give e
ach feeling a name and take a few moments to simply be present to that experience without trying to change it.

As in all trauma recovery, you’ll need to tell your story – going over it again and again, laboriously trying to piece together a narrative that can weave the fragmented and ill-fitting bits of memory and information into one cohesive whole. Ruminating on all subtle clues missed and fatal mistakes made, you’ll try to craft a breakup story you can live with. If you’re like most, it’ll be told from a victimized perspective, and filled with the many ways you were misunderstood, mistreated, devalued or wronged. Yet, as long as you stay focused on what he or she did that was shameful, immoral or bad, you’re not looking to discover the covert ways that you yourself are also responsible for what happened.

Reclaim your power

Here are a few questions to help you see yourself as the source of this experience in ways that can help prevent you from ever making these same mistakes again.

Ask yourself, “How did I give my power away in this relationship? What motivated me to do that? And what can I now do to reclaim it?”

Psychologists have a new term for ongoing festering resentment: Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder (PTED). PTED is now considered to be a severe health hazard, foreshadowing high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, cardiovascular problems and adverse changes in metabolism.

Dr Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, says, “The data that negative mental states cause heart problems is just stupendous. The data is just as established as smoking, and the size of the effect is the same.”7

Practice forgiveness

Forgiveness is not so much a feeling as a decision we make from the strongest, wisest parts of ourselves. When we do, we begin to neutralize and defuse the negative situation we’re in, and begin the empowering process of returning our destiny – and our health – to our own hands.8

The goal of a conscious uncoupling is not necessarily the restoration of justice, the attainment of restitution or the vindication of being right. The goal of a conscious uncoupling is simply to be free.

And that, my friend, is good for your body.

Katherine Woodward Thomas, a licensed marriage therapist and New York Times bestselling author of Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happy Even After, is the creator of the conscious uncoupling process that inspired the highly constructive breakup of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. For more information about her programs, visit:



Nat Rev Neurosci, 2012; 13: 421034; Am J Psychiatry, 2004; 161: 2245-56


Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 2017; 12: 1072-82; Front Hum Neurosci, 2014; 8: 74


J Neurophysiol 2010; 104: 51-60


PLoS One, 2008; 3: e3556


Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2005; 62: 1377-84


Psychol Sci, 2007; 18: 421-8


Curr Cardiol Rep, 2016; 18: 106; J Clin Neurosci, 2018; 47: 1-5


Ann Behav Med, 2016; 50: 727-35; J Behav Med, 2003; 26: 373-93

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Article Topics: brain, Emotion, love
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