When Love Hurts
The pain of heartbreak can lead to physical symptoms and illness, according to psychology research.
Hope Rising (yes, her real name) says that the day she watched her husband pull out of their driveway for the last time, she collapsed, clutching her stomach in pain.
That was, she says, in March 2012, a day before the couple's seventh wedding anniversary. Rising says she begged him not to go, and after he left, she couldn't get out of bed for days, though she rarely slept.
"Usually I'd just lie in bed and stare at the wall or the ceiling," Rising, 47, said. "I was angry that he left, and then I'd think about what I could have done differently for him not to leave."
Her stomach was constantly in knots, she suffered severe migraines and lived on "coffee, cigarettes and protein shakes." She lost 60 pounds in two months. Her children -- young adults from a previous marriage -- worried she was suicidal.
Rising's symptoms were dramatic, but as many people end up learning, heartbreak often causes physical symptoms, said Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. The human body has a built-in defense mechanism intended to respond to sudden jolts of stress "to keep us alive," said Rego.
People no longer need that response, called "fight or flight," to escape the saber-toothed tiger outside the cave, but our bodies still react to physical and emotional threats the way they did during caveman times.
Adrenaline surges through the body. Blood pressure rises, and breathing speeds up. Muscles contract, and the digestive system slows, causing cramping, constipation, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
Rising says she didn't eat for days on end, and when she did, she often vomited 15 minutes later.
"The experience of social rejection may actually have a bodily component to it," said Ethan Kross, a University of Michigan professor who has studied the effects of physical and emotional pain. "It is more than just a metaphorical feeling of pain around a heartbreak."
In fact, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome, is a medical condition in which a person experiences sudden chest pains or believes they're having a heart attack. The heart temporarily enlarges in response to a surge of stress hormones, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While most of these heart symptoms clear up on their own, it's important to see a doctor. A breakup is a time when someone is particularly vulnerable to physical illness, said Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author of the book "Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them and How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets."
Rising's heart raced for weeks after her husband left, she said, and she then experienced irregular bleeding. It turned out she had benign ovarian polyps that doctors said might have been triggered by stress.
Rising underwent surgery for the polyps, but only after months of regular visits to her therapist did her other physical symptoms begin to subside.
"Fear Eats the Soul"