There's no doubt about it: breakups can shake us to our core. Although we all deal with them differently, many people have experienced the phenomenon as the "breakup diet." Why does heartbreak cause us to lose interest in food? We sat down with YourTango experts Marina Pearson and Debra Smouse to find out why loss of love causes a loss of appetite.
For starters, Pearson points out, "Considering that body and mind are connected, it makes sense that if you are upset that your body will be affected." She explains what happens on a chemical level when we think stressful thoughts: "The first thing the body does is to create more adrenaline, which flows into the body; this increases our cortisol levels. Too much cortisol in the body on an ongoing basis can lead to sustained elevations of blood sugar, substantial loss of calcium from bones, depression of important immune responses, high blood pressure, loss of muscle mass, increased fat accumulation, and even loss of cognitive function. In short, it affects our immune system, and as our immune system is in the gut, is there any wonder that your appetite is affected by a breakup?"
Smouse expands on the physical reactions we often have to food when dealing with breakup pains, explaining that although some people turn to comfort food like cupcakes, wine and ice cream, many others feel ill when attempting to eat: "It's as if there is a connection between our stomachs and our hearts, and any food crossing our lips sends us into physical pain. We're unable to swallow. We force ourselves to eat something, and it immediately comes back up. Though we aren't quite ready to feel healing and hope, we don't desire to feel any more pain, so we abstain from eating."
When our hearts are hurting, Pearson says, it is logical that our bodies are, as well. "The body can only ever be in two states: either in a state of repair or a state of repose. If heartbreak is affecting you negatively, then your body will be in a state of repair. If it's constantly in a state of repair your appetite will be affected, as your body will be working over time."
While dropping a few pounds can be encouraging or even feel great, Smouse warns against taking this into unhealthy territory. "My client Ann became almost skeletal after her divorce. Her doctor urged her to put some weight back on, but she was conflicted. She was convinced her husband had an affair because the other woman was 'skinny', so what began as a reaction to the anxiety of the breakup eventually became her way to prove to her ex that she could be thin, and therefore desirable. One of the best ways to recover from a breakup is by taking care of yourself both emotionally and physically." Losing weight can be part of that equation but, as Smouse says, "starving yourself isn't taking care of yourself... even if it is helping you to shed some extra pounds."
So how can we move forward and engage in healthier behaviors toward food when we're reeling from a breakup? Pearson suggests keeping your detrimental daydreaming to a minimum: "Terrifying thoughts about your breakup or ex may look really real to you in the moment, but they are not — just like when you go the movies and see the wonderful special effects, you know that the actors are not really acting on the screen in that moment. The same is true of our thoughts department. Thoughts are the special effects department of our minds, and even though they may look really real... they are not."
Once you accept that your emotional and mental demons are able to be conquered (you WILL find love again; you CAN heal), Smouse encourages you to indulge in some self-care. "First of all, allow yourself to feel everything. While numbing seems like a good solution, the longer you put off processing your feelings, the longer it’s going to take to recover. Remember that a breakup involves grieving the loss of the relationship, as well as the idea of what the relationship represented."
Pearson says, "Of course for others, eating can be consolation for what has happened. I have also known quite a few of my clients to put on the weight. Once again, this comes from misunderstandings:
1. The idea that food can heal your heartbreak is not true
2. That using food to avoid the present moment is a healthy behavior
Eating in excess is just another way to avoid reality. If you are focusing on the eating and not on your thoughts, it would stand to reason that you will feel better."
To this note, Smouse encourages you to define to yourself what food means to you: "Get really clear about the role food plays in your life. Is it a reward? A part of a celebration? Is it sustenance or passion? By finding clarity about the role food plays in your world, you can better approach how to handle food challenges during this tender time."
To heal and find interest in food again, Pearson urges the heartbroken to change their thought process before their dietary habits. "Escaping how you feel about your breakup will only re-create your pattern of negative thinking and keep you mired in misunderstanding. However, if you are able to see that it's your thoughts creating the feelings and behaviours, then your appetite will not be affected."
But you also have to do some active work, too. As Smouse says, "Reach out to others in your support structure. Now may be the time to schedule lunch dates with a good girlfriend. She will help you laugh and be with you while you cry. It's a great time to hire a coach or a therapist to help you gain support and figure out your next step." And, in case you think that avoiding a real healing process is the best way to deal with pain, Smouse has a reality check: "There is no such thing as selective numbing. By numbing the painful stuff, you're also numbing the good stuff."
So what are the takeaways for those starving for breakup relief and a return to normalcy? Here's Pearson's take: "As your stressful thinking affects your body, you will notice that you're suppressing your appetite. However, the opposite is also true: you may also look to avoid your discomfort with food. Look in the direction of your feelings coming from your thoughts, and your appetite will start to correct itself of its own accord."
Smouse offers words of encouragement: "The final reminder I want to leave you with is that now is the time to figure out what you want. Ask yourself: if you had a weekend to do anything you wanted, what activities would you choose? If you could visit some places in your area, like theaters, museums or restaurants, what would you choose? If you could choose a perfect meal... what would you eat?
Ann eventually found her way back to herself with this process: feeling, awareness, and support while she figured out what she really needed to create a life she loved. You will too."
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