Heartbreak - the effect on your immune system

  • Apr 5, 2022

Heartbreak - the effect on your immune system

The excruciating effect of a marriage breakup has an effect on your brain and body-:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Chest palpitations
  • Stomach distress

"And the more I learned about this, the way that our immune systems actually change in the face of this kind of emotional catastrophe. I just felt like this was a story that hadn't really been told."

Florence Williams - author Heartbreak a personal and scientific journey

Florence describes your self concept as being different, you have a lot of identity wrapped up in this marriage.

The effects of the stress are physical. Your chemical composition changes - hence the songs you hear often reflect this.

"We know a little bit from some neuroscientists and researchers have actually scanned the brains of people going through heartbreak. And what they see is that parts of the brain light up that are virtually the same as the parts that light up when you feel physical pain. So a toothache or headache may actually register in the same place as heartbreak, and then another part of the brain that light lights up as one associated with craving and addiction."

Florence Williams - author Heartbreak a personal and scientific journey

"So just as you know, if someone takes away your cocaine, and you're addicted to cocaine, suddenly you're life partner is gone. Your lover is gone. You still want them you miss them, and your body has been so used to having the sort of dopamine and the serotonin and the oxytocin. You know, these positive neurotransmitters floating around from having this person next to you. When they disappear. Your body all of a sudden feels like it's not in a safe place anymore. It knows something's wrong."

Florence Williams - author Heartbreak a personal and scientific journey

Helen Fisher - Anthropologist described love, not as an emotion but a survival drive.

Hardwired is the need to attach to other people, carry our genes into the future.

When we are abandoned Helen Fisher uses the term "abandonment rage". Becoming upset and angry at the person who has left you.

Florence Williams talks about feeling humiliated, the shame, that if your primary partner cannot love you anymore, you feel unlovable. This is a huge self esteem issue.

Fisher's research revealed that for the person who's been left in a breakup, they spend 85% of their waking hours for a period of time anyways, thinking about that person. Becoming obsessed with the situation is common.

Love is a survival drive

Broken heart syndrome

"the stress of heartbreak can threaten our survival by affecting our health"

Florence Williams - author Heartbreak a personal and scientific journey

We tend to think of a broken heart as a metaphor.

There is so much emotional stress driving the release of stress hormones like adrenaline into the bloodstream that the receptors in your heart cause one lobe the left ventricle of your heart to balloon out so that it can't pump any more.

About 5% will die from that and about 20% of them are going to have an increased risk of heart attack.

Post menopausal women are most at risk (80% of cases) of broken heart syndrome.

Longitudinal research suggests being divorced can have a worse impact on your overall health than being single or even widowed. Compared to being in a happy, healthy relationship.

There's no doubt a toxic or abusive marriage is bad for you. And this is also based on population data. Looking at people's outcomes in aggregate. On an individual level, it's entirely possible to be divorced and healthy. Nonetheless, the research as a whole troubled Florence.

And we know that people who've gone through divorce are 26% more likely to suffer an early death.

They are more likely to suffer from-:

  • loss of brain function,
  • dementia, Alzheimer's,
  • metabolic disease,
  • metastatic cancer

There are researchers who actually really are trying to drill down on exactly what it is about the gene expression that changes our immune systems to make us more vulnerable to death and disease.

Florence explains-:

"If we feel like we have been rejected in love, we feel like we've been abandoned. Our bodies don't really make the distinction between feeling abandoned and love and feeling literally abandoned, you know, left out alone in the wilderness, kicked out of our clan group and so we go into this kind of fight or flight where we are expecting to be injured, perhaps we're more likely to get attacked by a predator because now we are unprotected. And so our bodies are trying to help us. Our white blood cells are trying to help us by making lots of inflammation which is great if you're about to suffer a flesh wound, but the wrong call if you're living in modern life, because we're not just out in the jungle alone for a couple of weeks. You know, some of us feel lonely. For years. People feel lonely for decades, and they have this chronic inflammation, you know, driving this increased rates of death and disease."

It can take a normal person about 4 years to return to baseline after a divorce.

Blood of a lonely person

One specialist described Florence's blood as the "blood of a lonely person".

Emotional pain has an effect on your physical body.

Data is not destiny

We are capable of learning how to become resilient. In general the personality types that have a harder time with heartbreak are the ones that may be more inclined to introspection, more introverted. Not the ones that can easily distract ourselves.

A personality trait particularly associated with resilience is the personality trait of openness.

So people who are open to new experiences who like cultivating beauty, who are moved by art tend to be more resilient.

Salutary effects of being in nature

Research data reveals that actually spending time in nature, rather than just exposure to nature, results in:
  • reductions in anger
  • reductions in feelings of fatigue
  • increases in positive mood (happiness)
  • decreases in negative mood (unhappiness)
  • reductions in ADHD in children
  • reductions of symptoms of depression in late adulthood

Source: Reconnect with Nature ABC All In The Mind - Why do our hearts hurt so bad?

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