Losing a friend is hard. In fact, in many cases it can feel more devastating than losing a romantic partner. And while the emotional impact of a friendship-gone-awry is arguably well-known -- anger, insecurity, sadness, regret, jealousy -- the physical symptoms are rarely, if ever, discussed. Yes, there are things that happen to your body when you break up with a friend; things that put the heartache into physical context.
To find out more about how the grief of losing a friend can manifest in our bodies, Romper spoke with Akron, Ohio-based Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Maryann W. Mathai, LPCC, NCC, who specializes in trauma-focused therapy, and Dr. Sherrie Campbell, PhsyD, author of But It’s Your Family: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members.
Mathai tells Romper that the emotions we feel can have a significant impact on our bodies. "Researchers have found our emotions and bodies are connected," she says. "Our bodies secrete stress hormones when we experience painful emotions such as grief or loss, which, in turn, trigger somatic symptoms." And these physical manifestations of our feelings can be intense, too. "The physical impact of heartbreak is tremendous," Campbell explains. "It can create exhaustion, lack of sleep or too much sleep, loss of appetite and motivation, and bouts of crying."
Losing a friend can actually be more difficult than breaking up with a lover, according to Dr. Seth Meyers, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, who wrote a piece on the subject in Psychology Today on Jan 13, 2015. We don't always expect a friend breakup to hurt as much, and we aren't always as motivated to acknowledge that pain when compared to the pain of a failed romantic relationship. "We tell ourselves that not having to lose sexual intimacy should make losing the friendship less painful than when we lose a romantic relationship."
The key way to recover after breaking up with a friend is to avoid ignoring your symptoms, or hoping they go away on their own, Mathai says. "Attending to the pain and anxiety, instead of avoiding it, will help alleviate it in the long run."
For more on how losing a friend can hurt — literally — read on:
You Can't Sleep
According to the Mayo Clinic, another side effect of loss is disrupted sleep, including bouts of insomnia, which can make the emotional side of getting over loss that much harder. "Since our bodies keep the score and hold emotions that haven't yet been processed, it can be helpful to cater to your body through massages, foot rubs, or light exercise," Mathai says.
You Feel Anxious
Mathai tells Romper that one key physical side effect of a friendship ending is anxiety. She recommends using a variety of strategies to address both the underlying emotions and physical manifestations of grief.
"Deep breathing can calm anxious symptoms such as fast heart rate, sweaty palms, tightness in your chest," she says. "Grounding tools, using all five of your senses can help you bring yourself back into the present instead of ruminating over the loss of the friendship."
You Feel Like You Can't Get Out Of Bed
Another side effect of grief is fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic, so it's common for the end of a friendship to be followed by long bouts of being bedridden. "It leads to depression and anxiety, and a loss of interest in life along with adrenal fatigue," Campbell explains.
Your Body Hurts
From tummy troubles to chest pain, the grief of losing a friend can result in a whole host of physical symptoms. "Our bodies can express somatically what we're feeling internally, especially when it isn't dealt with," Mathai says. "So it's no surprise when the loss of a friendship triggers aches and pains in your body, fatigue, insomnia, heart pains, or gastrointestinal issues."
You Get Sick
As reported by Medical News Today, feeling grief after losing a loved one can actually impact your immune system. A 2019 review of research showed that loss, and related stress and depression, can actual impair the your body's ability to fight infection, and even increase your risk of mortality.
It Might Literally Break Your Heart
"It has even been known to cause heart attacks or a stroke in the elderly," Campbell says. "It can shorten your lifespan even, depending upon how much time and energy you spend grieving and not moving forward."
To move forward, Mathai recommends seeking the help of a mental health professional. "We often assume therapy is reserved for dire or hopeless situations," she says. "Yet, even the loss of a friend can trigger confusing thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You should seek professional help as soon as what you're feeling in your body becomes overwhelming or negatively impacts your day-to-day functioning."
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.