The first thing I did after I separated from my husband was start taking really good care of myself. It seemed instinctual to carefully nurture every area of my health and well-being at such an emotional low in my personal life. Apparently, though, that’s somewhat unusual, according to the scores of studies that show your mental and physical health are typically compromised during a breakup. Women, for instance, report feeling lethargic, sleeping and eating poorly, being depressed and generally unwell after a romantic split.
What’s more, it’s not just women who suffer these post-breakup effects. In a study from Wake Forest University, researchers found men were more sensitive when a relationship went south than women, despite presenting a tough exterior to others. One theory for this reaction to romantic failure is that men have fewer people in which to confide their feelings. They also resort to drinking, smoking and other habits more frequently during a breakup, all of which can negatively impair anyone’s health.
Symptoms you might expect during a split include sleeplessness, nausea, headache, stomach troubles, tightening in the chest, or panic attacks accompanied by shortness of breath. You could gain or lose 20-30 pounds, regardless of whether you overeat or don’t eat enough. Women also report getting the flu or experiencing cold-like symptoms more frequently as their entire immune system may become compromised. If you’re freshly heartbroken, we’ve prescribed six steps to take that will protect your health during this difficult time:
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1. Let yourself feel the heartache instead of numbing it
“The healthiest thing you can do is make room for the feelings to express themselves,” says Susan Piver, author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. “That may sound a little ‘woo-woo,’ but I mean that you should simply sit with your sorrow, invite it in and experience it.” Where does it live in your body? What it is saying to you? How does it make you feel? It’s painful, no question, but all your efforts to push it away just make it stronger. Embrace the pain rather than treating it like the enemy. Piver recommends accepting your feelings without trying to shove them away or mask them with other activities — and this is her critical piece of advice: let yourself simply feel without making sweeping assumptions about what those feelings mean or being overly self-critical. For example: “I’ll never find love again,” “That was my last chance” and “Who will love me now?” are all statements aren’t productive to your mental health.
2. Share your pain with family and friends
“One of the most powerful things you can do, research shows, is to actually be with very close friends and family members and air that upset feeling with them,” says Diana Kirschner, Ph.D., author of Sealing the Deal: The Love Mentor’s Guide to Lasting Love (Center Street, 2011). The fascinating thing about sharing your feelings of angst is that the brain actually produces natural opiates (i.e., painkillers) when you do so, which makes you feel better. This is why pouring your heart out can actually make the associated aches and pains of a breakup — such as headaches and tummy troubles — literally vanish.
3. Go outside and get some exercise
Even though you may not feel like doing it right now, exercise is a proven mood lifter. A study published in the journal, Environmental Science & Technology, found that people who get outside in green spaces and get moving improve both their mood and self-esteem. What’s more, as little as five minutes of exercising outdoors can lift the breakup blues — so try activities like walking, cycling, running and gardening.
4. Engage in a feel-good practice to find peace
If you’re religious, pray. If you’re spiritual, seek guidance. If you meditate, find a quiet spot and do it. “If meditation was a drug, medical science would call it a ‘miracle pill’ because it has so many good physical and mental effects,” says Piver. Any kind of spiritual practice will hasten your journey through the grieving period.
5. Unleash an imaginary conversation with the ex
Clinical studies show that having an imaginary conversation with your ex can also help you move through the pain more rapidly. Talk to a pillow or an empty chair and say all the things you need to vent; express any incomplete feelings you’re left with after the relationship ended. You can also toss or punch a pillow to let off steam. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that people don’t end a relationship because the love disappeared, but because of a feeling of dissatisfaction or unhappiness that developed over time. Scientists also note that feeling like you’re still in love might not completely end when the relationship does, so don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself longing for your ex. Just remember to tell it to your pillow instead of picking up the phone!
6. Go ahead, have a rebound relationship
Traditional advice says to avoid jumping into a rebound, which makes sense. We’re not talking about one-night stands or putting yourself in dangerous situations, but sometimes, connecting intimately with someone else fairly quickly can be a nourishing experience. “I’m in favor of rebound relationships, because research I’m familiar with shows they are no more likely to fail than other relationships,” says Kirschner. So if you want to get back out there, do it and get your mind off your ex by focusing on someone new.
“No matter how young and attractive you are when your heart is broken, there is a lot of shame and you can feel really undesirable. It’s good to remember that’s not true,” says Piver, who also advocates getting back in the love saddle whenever you’re ready. A rebound relationship can present itself in a variety of ways, whether it’s rekindling an old friendship or beginning a new one — even spending more time with someone you know isn’t looking for anything serious can help you feel desirable again and heal your sense of loss and grief. It’s not right for everyone, but if you think it could help you feel better, then go for it!
Remember, with the end of a relationship comes enormous wisdom and the opportunity for healing. When your heart is broken, you’re able to feel everything, and this ability gives you a tremendous capacity for empathy and compassion. Put that energy to good use by giving love to others. Be nice to your coworkers, donate to charity, volunteer for a cause that’s close to your heart and be kind to strangers. Heartbreak shows you how much love you’re truly capable of, and the secret antidote for the pain is giving others that love in as many different ways as you can.
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work appears in Self, O - The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, Family Circle, Women’s Health and many others. She also regularly writes about health, lifestyle and relationships for Parade, Glamour, MSNBC.com and WebMD and is the author ofAirbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines.