Is there anything more soul-crushing than losing someone you love? Whether it be the end of a romantic relationship or the death of someone you care about deeply, a broken heart is one of the most emotionally intense experiences any of us will ever go through. There is no doubt that losing a loved one can greatly affect your emotional and mental state, but what are the physical effects on the body? And can a broken heart actually break your heart?
Studies show that emotional distress does indeed affect the physical body in a number of different ways. First of all, emotional pain causes blood to flow to regions of the brain that are also responsible for producing physical pain. This is why many people may feel what psychologists call "somatosensory representations" of pain after a hurtful experience such as rejection. Secondly, heartbreak can interfere with your immune system, which in turn can cause inflammation and a weakening of defenses against illness and infection.
Perhaps the most harmful aspect of heartbreak is that it is incredibly stressful, and when we are stressed, our bodies produce an excess of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. In small doses these hormones raise the heart rate, which is not such a bad thing, but high levels can overwhelm the heart and in some cases actually result in heart failure.
You may be surprised to hear that there is a condition called "broken heart syndrome," and it has been the focus of many scientific studies. Also known as "stress-induced cardiomyopathy" or "takotsubo cardiomyopathy," the condition is triggered by an onset of emotional distress.
The John Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute describes stress-induced cardiomyopathy as:
A condition in which intense emotional or physical stress can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness (cardiomyopathy). This condition can occur following a variety of emotional stressors such as grief (e.g., death of a loved one), fear, extreme anger, and surprise. It can also occur following numerous physical stressors to the body such as stroke, seizure, difficulty breathing (such as a flare of asthma or emphysema), or significant bleeding.
The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are very similar to those of a heart attack, and they can include angina (chest pain), shortness of breath, low blood pressure and temporary heart failure. However, a heart attack is often caused by blood clots or blocked arteries, and these symptoms are not present in patients with broken heart syndrome. In addition, the broken heart syndrome tends to go away rather quickly and rarely causes fatalities or permanent heart damage.
So to answer the questions previously posed, a broken heart can in fact affect the physical body in any number of ways, but you are very unlikely to die of a broken heart. If you have recently experienced an intense emotional experience, it is natural that it may manifest in the form of pain and fatigue. But while those painful sensations may be nothing more than broken heart syndrome, I urge anyone who is experiencing heart attack-like symptoms to check with a doctor or health care professional just to be sure.
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