Rx For the Emotional Hangover

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Feeling the physical impact of a rough breakup or argument? Julie Piotrowski has the cure.

Everybody knows the tricks for a better tomorrow after too much fun tonight: Gulp water, grab a couple aspirin, maybe pop a vitamin, and sleep it off. But what’s the prescription for the lingering gray cloud that can last for days—or even longer—after scenes that stir up feelings of fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, or jealousy?

The first step is recognizing what’s happening to our bodies. Immediately after spats with
bosses, friends, family, or lovers, we’re probably aware that we feel wretched, and why. But we often overlook the aftershocks of intense negative emotions: the physical, biochemical changes. Rashes, sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath, fluctuations in appetite, increased heart rate or blood pressure, nausea, headaches—all these symptoms can be part of an “emotional hangover.”

For example, the argument you had yesterday with your significant other might manifest itself today as indigestion or a stomachache. Romantic breakups can lead to breakouts and, literally, to heartache—heartburn, palpitations, or chest pressure.

“When people experience their strongest emotions in their bodies, they most often feel them in their stomachs and in their chests,” notes Dr. Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who studies the bodies and minds of people in love.

What’s the correlation? Each of our five basic emotions—fear, anger, sadness, love, and joy—uses a distinct brain circuit. Negative emotions originate in the right brain, home to millions of connections to the body. Via the brain stem, the emotions funnel into pathways that lead to to other organs.

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