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How a Broken Heart Can Literally Break Other Parts of Your Body

And the one thing that can make things better.

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Mannequin bust cracked above heart against a red background
Margeaux Walter
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Before I became heartbroken, I tended to dismiss portrayals of broken hearts in popular culture or literature or even by my friends — as overwrought. But one of the first stages of heartbreak, I soon learned, is feeling stunned, even if you shouldn’t have been. I’d been used to feeling in control. But heartbreak overtakes you.

When my husband decided to live on his own after three decades of togetherness, the clichés of heartbreak felt not like melodrama at all. I felt like I’d been axed in the heart, like I was missing a limb, set adrift in an ocean, loosed in a terrifying wood. I felt imperiled. Our dyad had dissolved into vapor, and I couldn’t grasp what remained.

I chronicle this journey in my new book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey.

By the time he took his small blue suitcase and rolled it out the kitchen door forever, I’d already lost 20 pounds I didn’t want to lose. I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Or ever trusting men again or being able to love or be loved. Having just turned 50, it all seemed even more impossible. I was completely, existentially, freaked.

In addition to the weight loss, I’d stopped sleeping. I was getting sick: my pancreas wasn’t working right. It was hard to think straight. I had a weird frenetic energy, like a buzz saw with no wood to cut.

I reached out to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love, to help me understand it. This feeling of “hypervigilance,” she said, is based on a cocktail of extra dopamine and norepinephrine flooding your brain because you feel unsafe, threatened, on alert. You’re searching for what you’re missing — and you’re scared. You obsessively go over a new calculus of survival. This helps explain the sleeplessness and the agitation. Your brain is also working to figure out your gains and your losses.

“So, you lie in bed at night thinking, who gets the dog?” Fisher said. “Where do I go for Christmas or whatever my holidays are? Who will be my friends and who won’t? You’re trying to figure out what you can learn from this.”

The weight loss, she explained, was due to a combination of anxiety (our metabolism speeds up in preparation for facing peril), forgetting to eat well (likely because we are dealing with sadness or depression), and stress hormones like cortisol shutting down normal digestion.

We tend to think of heartbreak as a dramatic emotional event. We view the heart as a metaphor, the seat of our feelings around love. But as scientists are increasingly learning, losing love can reach far beyond emotional anguish to influence physical health.

People who have suffered lost love face an elevated risk of serious medical woes. Among the documented downstream effects of rejection, grief and loneliness are fragmented sleep and fatigue, increased anxiety, poor impulse control, depression, cognitive decline and altered gene expression favoring inflammation-related diseases.  

A survey of 43 million medical records in Denmark found that in the year following a romantic breakup, men between the ages of 30 and 65 experience a 25 percent increased risk of a heart attack; women experience a 45 percent higher risk. In both sexes, the risk remains elevated by 9 to 24 percent even nine years later.

“Heartbreak is one of the hidden land mines of human existence,” says Steven Cole, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at the UCLA School of Medicine.

It’s worth knowing these health effects, because then, perhaps, we can work harder to not only survive our heartbreaks but thrive after them. And while divorce rates in the U.S. have stabilized or even dropped overall, they are rising among people 50 and over. For every member of a couple who may enjoy his or her newfound freedom, there’s another person left behind who may be devastated, at least for a while.

“In terms of stressful life events, divorce ranks just under death,” says Bert Uchino, professor of psychology at the University of Utah. The stress takes a toll. People who are divorced are 23 percent more likely to die earlier than their married peers, according to a 2011 analysis of 6.5 million people in 11 countries.

Researchers now have data on the relative health effects of being single, widowed and divorced. And the worst of all states, Uchino was sorry to tell me, is being divorced. Fortunately, the ill effects of a marital split dissipate over time. Health outcomes are worst during the first four years after separation and they can disappear altogether, especially if you remarry a positive and supportive partner.

I wasn’t ready for that. Fortunately, there are other ways to jump-start the recovery process. The first is to calm your nervous system. As someone drawn to nature, I sought solace and peace outside. Beauty in all forms can be helpful, according to University of Utah psychology professor Paula Williams. Her lab researches what she calls the ability to be blown away by beauty — and its relationship to managing difficult times.

“If you’re connected to art, nature and beauty, you are periodically being forced out of yourself to think about connectedness to something bigger than you,” said Williams. “And if you can do that, then learning is better and understanding is better.”

In other words, not only is cultivating an ability to find beauty calming, it’s also connecting, and that’s the next critical ingredient in feeling better, especially if heartbreak has made you lonely.

Finally, say the people I talked with, draw some meaning from your experience. Tell a story about what you’ve learned and how your experience can help you move forward and love better. With meaning can come the greatest heartbreak gift of all: purpose. Not just to come out of your experience more whole, but more able to help those around you, even strangers. One way or another, the secret to feeling better — and to having healthier cells — is love.

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