When you lose someone you love—grieving their death or the end of a relationship—it can feel like your heart is breaking. In 2004, 45-year-old Karen Unruh-Wahrer died after viewing the body of her son, Army Spec. Robert Unruh, killed in an ambush in Iraq. One of her colleagues concluded: “She died of a broken heart.” Research suggests that the expression “heartbroken” is more than a metaphor. In extreme cases, news of a sudden loss can result in takotsubo syndrome or cardiomyopathy, believed to be the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones caused by an intensely emotional event. Despite no evidence of blocked heart arteries, the left ventricle of the heart temporarily enlarges while the rest of the heart continues to function, sometimes with more forceful contractions. Without treatment, the heart can fail to pump sufficient blood, leading to death. While nearly 95 percent of patients experience complete recovery within 4 to 8 weeks, complications can occur and symptoms can recur.
Research suggests that the feeling that your heart is aching physically when you experience emotional distress might be due to common physiological mechanisms shared by social and physical pain. Studies using functional MRI have demonstrated that areas of the brain involved in the sensory components of physical pain become active when people think about the emotional pain of the unwanted end of a romantic relationship. Researchers conclude that a common somatosensory representation in the brain underlie emotional loss and physical pain. So when your heart is breaking, you might experience physical pain along with the cognitive and emotional issues that accompany loss. Along with sadness, longing, anxiety, resentment, helplessness, or hopelessness, you might lose confidence in yourself and begin questioning your judgments and behaviors. You might not feel the happiness you once did in things you had enjoyed. You might also experience physical changes such as insomnia, fatigue, muscle pain, and heartache.
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