Falling in love is one of the most beautiful and exciting feelings in the world. We need only to think of our beloved partner and our heart skips a beat. We are full of energy and plans for the future.
Yet what about when the romance dies? What happens to our heart then? Anyone who’s been properly lovesick knows how painful it is to feel so lovelorn, so sad, and so worthless. It seems to us that our loss is too great to bear — the pain is almost too much. Just getting up in the morning, having a shower, and facing the day takes a huge effort of self-will. We have no appetite. It feels as if the sun has sunk below the horizon forever.
We experience feelings of desperation, as if we are about to fall apart, not just emotionally, but physically, too. But can such emotional stress kill us? Is it possible to die of a broken heart?
The answer is: yes, it really is possible. Although it’s very rare. Feelings of grief, protracted sadness after a loved one is gone, and long-term emotional stress can have a huge effect on the physical body. It doesn’t even need to be a drastic, life-changing event to eventually cause us physical harm. Lack of appreciation, bullying, or constant complaining are enough to drive a person into such a gratification crisis, which can have a massively detrimental effect on physical health. The source of the pain may be in the mind, but the pain itself is very real and by no means imaginary.
A condition that was first described relatively recently is interesting in this context: takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which is a stress-related alteration of the muscle of the heart. It’s also known as broken-heart syndrome, transient left-ventricular apical-ballooning syndrome, and stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It occurs predominantly in post-menopausal women following exposure to sudden, unexpected emotional or physical stress. The dysfunction of the heart muscle caused by this syndrome is associated with symptoms — such as acute difficulty breathing and severe chest pain — that are very similar to those of a heart attack. An ECG will often show an ST-segment elevation, which is also a typical sign of a heart attack. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is also associated with cardiogenic shock, rapid irregular heartbeat, and even ventricular fibrillation. All of these symptoms are immediately life-threatening and must be treated as quickly as possible.
When the patient’s life circumstances improve, the condition usually goes away. As long as they receive immediate and intensive treatment, patients are usually healthy and able to handle stress again within about a month. Only around 1 per cent of cases end fatally.
There are many research projects and theories aimed at explaining the cause of broken-heart syndrome. But no matter how successful the scientific research is, there’s one thing it will never be able to do: ease the pain of the broken-hearted. When we are really lovesick, no doctor in the world can take away those terrible feelings. The only thing that might help a little is the support of good friends, who can offer a shoulder to cry on. And remembering that time is a great healer.
Wallowing in lovesick self-pity is often seen as a weakness, but this is an attitude I don’t share. What could be greater proof of a person’s humanity than to be moved to the core by feelings of love? Or the loss of it?
Johannes Hinrich von Borstel is a paramedic, cardiologist-in-training, and one of the best Science Slammers in Germany. He is the author of Heart: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Heroic Organ, a lively and informative exploration of all aspects of the heart, coming June 2017 from Greystone Books. Here, he draws from his new book to reveal the fascinating science behind “Broken Heart Syndrome.” As it turns out, it really is possible to die of a broken heart.
Excerpted from Heart: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Heroic Organ by Johannes Hinrich von Borstel, published June 2017 by Greystone Books. Reproduced and adapted with permission from the publisher.