Can You Actually Make Yourself Sick With Jealousy?

Jealousy, often used synonymously with the term envy, is a normal emotion that everyone feels at some point. However, some people are much more prone to feeling jealous and experiencing the feeling to an extreme level. A 2022 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior has revealed that about a third of variances in jealousy levels can be explained by genetics. That leaves the other two thirds to be influenced by environmental factors, like the relationship dynamics, role models observed during childhood, and personal experiences with betrayal.

You may have heard yourself or someone else described as "green with envy." The color green, especially when associated with a person's face, is also commonly associated with nausea. According to the National Institute of Health, a green-tinted face is so unnatural to the eye that it creates a sort of error code that can only be perceived as the subject being ill. This begs the question: Can jealousy, either in the context of a relationship or just in general life, make you physically sick? Here are the facts.

Your brain on jealousy

When studying the effects of jealousy on the brain and body, it is important to note that while often used as synonyms, jealousy and envy do not technically share a definition. Jealousy refers to feeling threatened and anxious that another person might take away what (or who) you have. Envy is pining after what (or who) someone else has. While the notions and emotions seem remarkably similar, they actually manifest differently in the brain.

A 2015 study published in Emotion showed that feelings of jealousy can be induced by stimulating an area of the brain called the left frontal cortex, which controls problem solving and impulse control. Envy, on the other hand, shows up in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is tasked with regulating empathy and decision making, according to data found in a 2016 study published in Nature Communications. While envy tends to feel more like pain or sadness, jealously can trigger an acute stress response, releasing cortisol and throwing you into a state of fight-or-flight (via a 2017 study in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution). According to the Cleveland Clinic, this biological reaction can cause a spike in blood pressure, paleness, shaking, and clammy hands. In other words, stress stemming from intense jealousy can indeed make you feel sick. 

How to recover

When you find yourself in fight-or-flight mode due to sudden and intense jealousy, it can be very difficult to regulate your nervous system. After all, this very response is what has allowed humans to become alert enough to survive threats like large predators and natural disasters for this long (via Discover). Fortunately, with some practice, you can learn to get yourself out of this heightened state. First, take a moment to regulate your breathing. When under acute stress, your natural instinct will be to take quick shallow breaths from the chest. According to Psychology Today, forcing yourself to instead take long, deep breaths from the belly, exhaling for as long or longer than you inhaled, can be enough to ground you.

If deep breathing isn't enough, walk away from the situation and engage in some physical exercise, like briskly walking or jogging. While you might not think you feel well enough to exercise, you'll soon discover that burning off some of the excess energy your body is storing is exactly what you need to clear your head and return your nervous system to normal. Then, you can return and re-engage, if necessary, when you're thinking more clearly and feeling stronger.